Publication News

William Delman wrote to tell us he’s  having a really good month: “I have another one to add! I just sold “Donuts’ End” to The Arcanist. I want to thank everyone in the workshop that helped me sharpen this one, including Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Gregor Hartmann, Jonathon Hoffman, Jack Jonnes, Will Mason, and Robert Paul. The story should be available online December 22nd.”

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Imagine waking up one morning and finding your house full of pixies, brownies, sprites, and dragons. Magic is real.

Write a story about how people learn to cope.

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

William Delman has good news to share: “I sold a piece that was in the workshop recently. “Nothing to See Here” will be appearing in SciFan Magazine later this month–Issue 10 is available for presale on Amazon now. I’d like to say a big “thank you” to everyone in the workshop that provided me with suggestions and comments for this one, including Gregor Hartmann, Skye Allen, Jonathan Hoffman, and Allan Dyen-Shapiro. I have another one to add!  I just sold “Donuts’ End” to The Arcanist. I want to thank everyone in the workshop that helped me sharpen this one, including Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Gregor Hartmann, Jonathon Hoffman, Jack Jonnes, Will Mason, and Robert Paul. The story should be available online December 22nd.”

 

Allan Dyen-Shapiro writes: “Hi, all. I have some major thank yous to send out to those who critiqued my short story, “I’m Proud of You, Mum,” as it is now my second sale ever to a market paying pro rates (ninth short story sale in total.) It will run in volume 1 of the anthology series, Mind Candy. The editor/publisher, Alvin Mullen, is shooting for publication in Jan/Feb 2018.Those I owe thanks: Rob Graves (who, among other things, corrected my first attempt at writing in British English); Jon Paradise (even though you thought my ending was twee, making you one of the very few people on this planet who has ever told me I wasn’t being dark enough 🙂 ); Steve Brady; Gene Spears; Gregor Hartmann; and Zvi Zaks. And the rest of this wonderful community, as I would never have gone from knowing absolutely nothing about writing fiction to having actual sales without the help of OWW.”

 

Editor’s Choice Reviews October 2017, 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.

The Advantage Is Decadent And Depraved by Bobby Harrell

I had fun with “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: it’s stuffed full of personality, quickly builds the kind of universe that spills off the page, and puts forward a sharp critique of planetary SF institutions that feels organic without ever stopping the sense of adventure. It does, however, not always keep its pacing steady, and so this month I’d like to talk about ways to efficiently pack that information in without slowing the pace of an adventure story down.

“The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” leads with some great sensory metaphors—”Old air scrubber fluid, weeks-old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can” gives readers an immediate sense of the tongue-in-cheek voice of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”, shows us the core of Eileen through her own personal metaphor set, and tells us what kind of wonder space travel is in this universe: in a word, it’s not. This is a space future built on work and parts that break down, a messed-up pragmatic space future, and a character who’s easily as broken-down, pragmatic, and messed-up. That’s a lot of work and scene-setting to pack into a few tidy lines, and on top of that, they’re fun.

The worldbuilding, overall, in “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” really works for me. There’s a great balance being struck between getting in all the technical and biological details that give a science fictional future verisimilitude and not letting them stall out, drown, or overshadow the narrative. The amount of detail about this world that Eileen works in while moving the plot forward gives it a real texture: a future that’s not just unevenly distributed, but actively innovating, quietly diverse, and on the move.

Those details do great work at also being thematic: phrases like “that industrial glue smell people mistake for new” are great little tells for what’s really up with the Advantage, and where this story is going to go. And the little spotlight on Lantham’s bourbon as he tells Eileen that her drug use makes her untrustworthy is a funny, sarcastic, and really effective tell.

The one exception is the section marked by a note regarding a better backstory, or less of one. I’d agree that less is more; the information dump in that section stands out as clumsier than the rest of the work in the piece, and I’m not sure laying recent history out in its entirety sends the story forward. There are good insights in that section, but they’re drowned in the exposition.

There’s more of a mixed gift in Eileen’s narrative voice. While it’s a real core strength, I wonder if there’s some advantage to be gained here by trimming it back somewhat. She lays on the Hunter S. Thompson/Spider Jerusalem gonzo journalist schtick rather thick, both in narrative voice and her dialogue, and as workshop alumnus Rae Carson says, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is really five. It’s contrasts—in voice, in style, in intensity—that stand out to readers in prose, and I’d suggest trying out a draft that builds in some contrasting levels in Eileen’s voice. Trim out some of the fourth-wall-breaking direct address and some of the jokes that don’t quite land (I’d mention the horn one specifically), and build in some quiet parts, some more transparent narrative, and watch the quirks, character, sardonic asides, and keen observation stand out that much more in comparison.

I’d also suggest some light trims on the sentence level. There are places—notably when Eileen’s going to and attending the meet-and-greet, getting drugs from the doctor in the med bay, explaining the Simulation Chamber, and the hallucination—where she’s functionally saying the same things twice or explaining unnecessarily to the readers, but not in ways that build out character, voice, or atmosphere. There’s a palpable drag in those sequences, and the same level of implication that “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” uses when talking about worldbuilding and technical specs will work when talking about people and relationships, too.

That drag echoes on the more structural level of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: there’s potential for much stronger pacing in the middle of the piece. While the first few scenes of the piece are strong, directed, and goal-oriented, once Eileen goes on her personal tour of the Advantage, the pacing becomes episodic; each discovery or encounter doesn’t quite lead logically or string together with the next to build anything bigger. While the fakeout with the doctor leads somewhere, the interaction with Delta, the Simulation Room, and Eileen’s time with the jet never quite pay off in any fashion, and they’re all basically cancelled, in terms of consequences, by the pirates. Lantham mentions them, but it’s obvious he was going to have it out for Eileen anyway; they’re not quite carrying their weight in the overall piece.

Ultimately, they’re distractions from what Eileen’s suit and Rabbit were already doing—and while it’s easy to believe that this was part of her plan all along, to play a trick on Lantham and the Fleet, it’s a little harder to believe because the readers don’t get enough subtextual clues to that plan to see it click together in hindsight. Playing a trick on characters fits perfectly with her personality, but when the trick’s also on the readers, by omission or otherwise, it feels less organic and less satisfying. I’d suggest building in a trail for Eileen’s plan: one that’s slight and constant enough that it connects when she announces it, and builds reader satisfaction, instead of chipping away at it.

With the exception of a somewhat light landing on the ending—that much story deserves a little more weight in the last beat—”The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” is doing some fabulous work for an early draft. I’d love to see what it accomplishes after revisions, and best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, 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.

The King Of Hands by Henry Szabranski

There is a lot to admire in “The King of Hands”: a truly menacing-feeling underground horde of hands, an atmosphere reminiscent of Junji Ito, and a less-loaded twist on the trajectory of the standard Lovecraftian tale. However, there’s also a lot of room to explore the story’s potential, and several ways “The King of Hands” isn’t quite living up to its promise. This month, I’d like to talk about walking the line between evoking a genre and sticking too close to its established tropes, and a core technique for crafting fresh original takes on story elements that have been used frequently before.

“The King of Hands” has definite atmosphere. It creates immediate tension from the first sentence with plain, unadorned prose: stark enough to build a feeling of darkness, a heartbeat pace, and the hyper-narrow focus of mortal fear. Its move to the wider, more impressionistic and colourful flashback of the second scene just emphasizes the realism of that danger through contrast.

However, not diving directly into flashback is a fairly common piece of writing advice, and “The King of Hands” demonstrates, in its early scenes, why: The first scene is gripping, evocative, and has a definite conflict and hook, but the more time we spend in flashback, in action that isn’t progressing or solving the issue that’s caught readers’ attention, the more the flashbacks come to feel like a delay. Before we reach the inventiveness of the Temple of the Hands and interesting—and unexplored—question of why Marew is carving hands too, we reach the core issue with “The King of Hands”: it’s not yet moving beyond its own set of tropes.

There’s a strong feeling in the worldbuilding of “The King of Hands” of corners being cut. There are a lot of very familiar narrative shorthands at play in its 5,500 words: drunk father with belt who blames a child for his mother’s death, kids daring each other to play where they aren’t supposed to, the frightened narrator who is actually murderous, sibling rivalry, secret societies underground, the question of whether the protagonist is insane or brushing the unknown, and the inciting incident of Thom’s fall being untelegraphed sexual jealousy—and on their wedding day, no less, and with his brother, no less.

These are all somewhat well-used horror tropes, some calling back to seventies and eighties pulps and some directly back to Lovecraft or Poe. The sheer accumulation of familiar ideas makes them all feel more like signposts—the beginnings of ideas which haven’t yet been finished. The sheer amount of sources for them make the piece feel as if it can’t quite decide which story it wants to be. Thom, Tania, and Marew’s childhood escapades have a faint feel of modern suburbia to them, but their town is giving off cues of a second-world fantasy location (summerwine, the general technology level of a standard Renaissance fantasy world), and Marew’s tourist business takes us even farther out, into small-town territory. I’m unsure where we are, in time, space, society, or cosmology.

The unfortunate cumulative effect is visible in “The King of Hands”: when enough corners are cut in crafting our worlds, we start to run out of paper.

The interesting question is: When many stories use the same tropes, why do they feel tropey in “The King of Hands”?

One answer, I’d suggest, is the not-yet-coalesced state of the story’s narrative—and it may be possible to address by moving from the abstract to the specific.

We’ve talked before about the concept of using the right detail, rather than several details that outline vaguely—or try to suggest—a character’s experience. Choosing one evocative, illustrative detail is frequently more effective because it’s personal—this is this character’s experience—and that personalness makes the detail, and thus the story, feel concrete, real, and true. Detail work is a portable skill: it applies just as strongly to working with tropes and archetypes.

The major complaint readers and critiquers have about tropes is not that they aren’t original thinking: as writers, we work in a field that’s built on thousands of years of storytelling, trying to tap into cultural ideas about how the world works, so very little of what we do is going to be purely original. But the underlying issue is whether something feels original—which is to say unique, which is to say specific. Does this story feel fresh? Does it feel like someone’s concrete, actual experience instead of a shorthand for experiences kinds of people have?

That’s where the question of one evocative detail comes in. I’d suggest going through a new draft of “The King of Hands” with that filter in mind: Instead of the fairly standard idea of “drunk father with belt”, what was Thom’s experience with his father like? What did Thom’s father call him, when he brought that belt down, and what was the look on his face? What colour was the belt buckle? What did his right eye do when he was angry? What’s the father’s drink of choice, and how did it smell on his breath? How did Thom feel before, during, and after? With a little thought—and a few narrative decisions—the shorthand photocopy of a drunk parent dealing out a beating becomes something rich, vivid, real and original because it’s been given specificity.

There are interesting questions in this piece, and a potentially interesting take on what happens when one transports the Lovecraftian mode into a very different setting. However, they’re in need of unearthing, and as the story moves from the general to the specific, they’ll likely attain some focus—and make it clear which direction “The King of Hands” should take in the draft that follows.

As it stands, “The King of Hands” is a horror story—but what is this horror story? I’m looking forward to the answer.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

The Stone in the Skull (The Lotus Kingdoms) by Elizabeth Bear (Tor Books, October 2017)

Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to her critically acclaimed epic fantasy world of the Eternal Sky with a brand new trilogy. The Stone in the Skull takes readers over the dangerous mountain passes of the Steles of the Sky and south into the Lotus Kingdoms.

The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort. They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.

Into the Bright Unknown (Gold Seer Trilogy) by Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books, October 2017)

The stunning conclusion to Rae Carson’s New York Times–bestselling Gold Seer trilogy.

Leah Westfall’s journey has been one of ever-present peril, hidden magic, harsh realities, loss, life, determination, and love. She has searched for a place to belong and a place—and people—to call home, people who can accept a girl with magical powers that prove to be both blessing and curse.

Leah is poised to have everything she ever dreamed of on the long, dangerous journey to California’s gold fields—wealth, love, the truest friends, and a home. Thanks to her magical ability to sense precious gold, Leah, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have claimed rich land in California Territory. But their fortune makes them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Leah and her friends must fight back with all of their power and talents.

Leah’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter California’s history forever.

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Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, 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.

The Radioactive Four–Chapter 1 by N. Howl

This is an interesting beginning, very intense, and packed with strong sensory details. The protagonist whose memory is broken, whose experience of the world comes in fragments, has quite a lot of potential to grow and discover herself as the novel progresses.

The logistics of the scenes are somewhat of a work in progress. As I read, I wondered how the scientist and Banton could be unaware of Alia’s dome shattering, and how she managed to escape so easily, even though she was captured in fairly short order. There seems to be lack of security there, that doesn’t match the hints of what’s going on and the importance of Alia to the—whatever it is. A little more clarity might help, and perhaps some rethinking of the setup.

What may also help in the revision phase is to recalibrate the emotional volume of this chapter. There’s a visible effort to create vivid images and evoke strong feelings. It’s a worthy ambition, and there are some memorable moments. But, as with so much else in the art and craft of writing, a little can go quite a long way.

Emotion, like physical action, needs its quiet phases as well as its moments of high intensity. It’s the ebb and flow that draws the story along: now more subtle, now dialed up to 11. Fictional characters, like real-life humans, need time to relax and regroup in among the high drama.

In this chapter, the volume is consistently turned all the way up. From the very beginning, Alia’s teeth chatter, her mind rattles, electricity bolts, pain erupts—crescendo after crescendo. Everything stabs, jolts, shakes, writhes, convulses, explodes.

We are so often exhorted to make our prose vivid and memorable, to choose strong words over weak or neutral ones. That’s good advice for the most part. Prose that’s emotionally flat is prose that isn’t doing its job. Characters can’t round themselves out, scenes never quite come alive.

But it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction, too. Writing, like life, is a balancing act. We can turn the volume down at intervals and tone down the word choices, go for the neutral, give ourselves and our readers a break from the constant percussion.

It’s like a pause in a storm. The interlude of quiet focuses the mind and brings the stronger parts into higher relief. Then when the wind and thunder come back, they’re that much more powerful.

If every other word is a Big! Loud! STRONG! word, they cancel each other out. Image piled on image over the course of a chapter or a novel can have a numbing effect. And if the images themselves tumble over the top–“Images stabbed Alia’s mind, searing from nose to brain like an inhale of water,” “the man’s eyes rolled back and he slumped like slime down glass,” “Alia bolted up, her brain rattling inside her heavy head”—we’re pummeled with metaphors, till they start to blur into one another.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but the strongest prose is carefully measured and balanced with neutral words and phrases. When the volume does go up, it hits all the harder for the lower volume around it. One good, vivid image stays in the mind, and the emotion that image evokes resonates through the whole scene.

What I would suggest in revision would be to pare ruthlessly in the first pass. Keep one strong image per paragraph, or be even more sparing with them. See how far the prose can be trimmed and the volume turned down without falling flat. Focus on what’s essential, what must be there. Allow downbeats and pauses. Let the words (and the characters) breathe. The action will still move at a rapid clip and the emotions will still punch hard when they need to.

And if some of what came out needs to go (judiciously) back in, that’s good, too. As I said: it’s all about balance.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Review August 2017, 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.

Climbing The Motherman — Part 1/2 by Henry Szabranski

I was drawn to “Climbing the Motherman” by its intense, immense sense of scale: a wild, weird, airborne world full of razorbugs, peaks, arteries—and yet one that didn’t feel out of readers’ grasp. This month, I’d like to talk about juxtaposition, what readers expect to see, and how we can play off that to create worldbuilding that stays familiar even when it’s strange.

“Climbing the Motherman” leads with its strengths: haunting imagery, a mythic cadence to its prose, and a gorgeously immense sense of scale. From the very first paragraphs, there’s a juxtaposition of large and small: the distant bodies of the Maiden, Hunchback, and the Motherman itself contrasted with Percher’s small, nimble, delicate body; the giants as, themselves, small components of a huge and unknown world sheathed in mist. There are multiple layers of awe at play in this piece’s worldbuilding, and all of them channeled well through Percher’s fascination with the giants—and his familiarity with the Motherman grounding readers in his own “usual”.

We’ve talked in previous months about how tension can be a tool to spark and maintain reader engagement, and there are a few sources of productive tension in “Climbing the Motherman”. The most notable one is the Motherman himself, and the tension between the idea of body and the idea of world. There’s enough in the geography of the Motherman for readers to recognize as a person, but the tribe’s use of cavities as homes and arteries as tunnels, the geography of a mountain in the form of a man, create a fascinating sense of body as topography, as landmark. It’s a dissonance that fascinates, partially because it’s not explained to readers, but worked in as an organic part of Percher’s universe.

That tension and juxtaposition resonate into the prose level. “Climbing the Motherman” has a strong, evocative sense of word choice that summons instant imagery but never quite in the way readers might expect: “the graves of cook fires” and “leaning forward so that it crouched upon its knuckles and its ridged spine notched the sky” were particular favourites of mine. There’s solid threading of Percher’s own worldview in the choice of metaphors, as well: describing a sky as “flesh-pink” tells readers about the components of his world. It’s not the expected metaphor, but it’s one that’s easily understandable to readers, and the just-strange-enoughness makes it work well enough to not stop readers cold, but still evoke a sense of elsewhere.

There’s also a juxtaposition in terms of Percher’s status as a slightly unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to his attitude toward Skink. I’m impressed by the pervasive and subtle indications “Climbing the Motherman” throws out that there’s less difference than Percher might think between the ways he uses Skink as a prop for his self-image and Broc’s more overt statement that her name’s whatever he pleases. The growth of his attraction to her, once she’s the only woman left, is downright disturbing when mirrored with Broc’s flip over into calling her “Little Ma”. It’s quite apparent that Percher has no idea who he is, or who he’s dealing with—and continually misses that Skink is the only character who reliably knows what she’s doing here. He’s not half as good as he thinks or wants to be, and that complicates the piece interestingly.

However, I’d call some attention to how Skink’s portrayal ultimately ends up: With Skink’s main motivating desire being to walk—as if she’s nothing more, ultimately, than her injury, not a person with wants or needs outside it—and how fulfilling that desire, taking her power, leads to crashing the entire Motherman. Yes, it works out, but there’s a quite damaging trope in there: that all someone with a disability wants is to not have that disability. I’d take a second look at that sequence, and consider carefully how it would read to readers living their own lives with disability.

I’d also take a careful look at Broc and how he’s characterized. He’s written with a different dialogue cadence than Percher or Skink, one that’s stereotypically less educated, and as he’s the undisputable antagonist here—one who’s taken down largely because he’s obstinate and almost unbelievably stupid—I’d suggest giving some attention as to whose real-life dialogue pattern he’s using, and whether that’s going to perpetuate any particularly unkind stereotypes. While a lot of “Climbing the Motherman” uses shorthands as a positive, to build bridges with readers, it’s crucial that our particular choices of shorthands be ones that are examined, and, well, chosen.

Aside from those questions of characterization, “Climbing the Motherman” does a lot very well, on several levels—and uses the same tricks of juxtaposition to craft a world and relationships that feel rich and nuanced while throwing readers down a fast-moving, action-packed plot. It’s an interesting piece, and with a little careful thought, one that can definitely be great.

Best of luck with it!

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

Publication News

William Delman writes: “I sold a piece that was in the workshop recently. “Nothing to See Here” will be appearing in SciFan Magazine later this month–Issue 10 is available for presale on Amazon now. I’d like to say a big “thank you” to everyone in the workshop that provided me with suggestions and comments for this one, including Gregor Hartmann, Skye Allen, Jonathan Hoffman, and Allan Dyen-Shapiro.”