Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, 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.

Dialogue With Death by Tony Valiulis

As a physicist turned writer, I found this story about a physicist turned writer (and serial killer) irresistible.  But it has much more to offer than that.  Many, many stories have been written in which death appears as a character.   That means any new story using this conceit needs to offer some fresh perspective or element.  “Dialogue with Death” offers several fresh elements that draw me in.  First, death is not some omniscient, immortal being.  Instead, death is specifically one person’s death, in this case, Lane’s.  This death came into being at a certain point in Lane’s life and will probably cease to exist when Lane does.  Second, death is able to design Lane’s death using Lane’s particular interests and fears.  And since Lane is obsessed with physics and philosophy and meaning, his death is unique.

Many stories have also been written about serial killers.  But here, also, the story has something fresh to offer.  Lane’s failed search for the meaning of life in physics led him to find a purpose in life by killing.  He doesn’t really care who he kills or how; it’s just something he does once a year to provide meaning for himself.

The story also has some vivid description, as in the second paragraph.

I do think the story could be strengthened in several ways.  The story mainly serves to reveal its underlying idea:  that death has created a uniquely horrifying fate for Lane.  Lane is on the verge of death at the start of the story, and various visions and flashbacks interrupt his dialogue with death.  This type of structure is different than a traditional structure in which the protagonist is struggling to achieve a goal.  Lane doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve anything; he seems like death’s victim, powerless over his thoughts or fate.  In such a structure, it’s important to limit those visions and flashbacks to the minimum number necessary to set up the ending.  I think several of these aren’t necessary to set up the ending and could be cut.  For example, Keegan seems to have no effect on Lane’s fate.  She seems to come into Lane’s life and exit his life rather randomly.  Whenever events feel random, not part of a causal chain, they seem manipulated by the author.  So that’s how Keegan felt.   I understand that she represents Lane’s chance to change, but then neither Lane nor death thinks he would have changed, and her presence in his life has nothing to do with his final fate, so her scenes aren’t pulling their weight in the story.  I think with a story like this, the shorter you can make it, the more power the end will carry.

The story also seems wordy at times, so more length could be cut by eliminating that.  For example, the last six paragraphs of the fourth scene (starting “That these same theories . . .”) seem to be belaboring some ideas that the story has previously established quite well.  I think you could cut the length of that section by 50% at least.  Similarly, in the eighth scene, there’s a section of five paragraphs beginning “Lane shook his head and rolled his shoulders” that I think could be cut by about 70%.  I found my interest in the story declining the longer I read, because the story seemed to bounce back and forth between flashbacks and conversations with death too much, and some scenes didn’t seem to contribute a lot.

I’d love to see some of the most intriguing aspects of the idea developed more.  I’m fascinated by the fact that death came to awareness because of Lane’s murders.  It seems that people who don’t commit horrible acts have no personal “death” who decides their fate but simply pass into eternal peace.  If that’s the case, what does it take to create a death?  Most people are guilty of some bad act.  Does this only happen with murder?   Does this mean there is some moral force controlling the afterlife?  I think Lane would wonder about this.

I was constantly thrown off by the omniscient point of view.  We spend time in Lane’s head (“His mind wandered,” “Lane could see an image”), time outside of Lane looking at him and commenting on him (“his lips curling into something between a sneer and a smile,” “Lane was 35,” “It gave Professor Lane’s life meaning”), and time outside of both Lane and death (“death’s face darkened, momentarily became almost skeletal”).  In an omniscient POV, you can do all of these things, but moving between them needs to be done gradually and smoothly, so the reader is not jarred and distracted.  Instead of gradually transitioning from inside Lane to outside Lane to inside the omniscient narrator’s perspective, the POV often seemed to jump from one to the other, leaving me confused and disoriented.

Finally, while I like the idea of Lane being relegated to a physics-related eternal limbo, there are two things about his fate that don’t make sense to me.  First, looking at the science, when someone (say Lane) is traveling near or at the speed of light, time slows down for Lane only relative to the observations of someone else (say death).  Lane, traveling at c, would experience time as moving forward normally.  It would be only death, watching Lane, who would see Lane seemingly moving infinitely slowly.  So Lane would not be trapped in a moment as the story describes.  At least, that’s the way I see it.

The second part of his fate that doesn’t make sense to me is why death chose it.  I understand using physics and a unified field theory against Lane, which is a nice idea, but why is a numb limbo the worst fate for Lane?  I would think being in horrible pain for eternity would be worse.  If Lane hated boredom and sameness, then a numb limbo would be an appropriate punishment.  But that doesn’t seem to be Lane’s issue.  If you could tie his death to making his life meaningless, that would seem a more appropriate fate.

I really enjoy the underpinnings of physics and philosophy, and the fresh elements you’ve brought to the story.   I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Publication News

Elizabeth Bear has announced a new Karen Memory novella titled Stone Mad, bought by Tor.com Publishing and scheduled to be released in 2018. Also watch for the first book in her new Lotus Kingdoms trilogy The Stone in the Skull coming in October 2017.

Grapevine Market News

Issues in Earth Science is open to submissions. Fiction should be written for the feature, “Eww, there’s some geology in my fiction!”  We are interested in MG and YA fiction that incorporates Earth Science concepts as key, rather than incidental, elements. Stories should be between 1000 and 3000 words, with preference for stories around 2000 words. Payment will be $0.06/word ($60 minimum). Stories received before April 15 will be considered for the May 2017 publication window. Full guidelines here.

Daily Science Fiction (DSF) is a market accepting speculative fiction stories from 100 to 1,500 words in length: science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, etc. They will consider flash series–three or more flash tales built around a common theme. DSF pays 8 cents per word for first worldwide rights and for nonexclusive reprint rights. Additionally, they pay more money for additional reprinting in themed Daily Science Fiction anthologies. Full guidelines here.

Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[ February 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Stephen Whitehouse
Submission: Becoming What You Hate by Guy Cheston
Submitted by: Guy Cheston

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Luck is a pretty universal concept. Some believe in it, others don’t. But think about what the world–or the universe–would be like if luck was a real, almost physical thing that could be shared, hoarded, or withheld.

Now go write a story about that idea. Make it your own.

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).

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Biddy by Caleb March

“Biddy” caught my attention this month with its confident voice, textured prose, and the way it quietly paints violence as not a shock to the reader or a glorification, but part of one character’s struggle to be the kind of person he’d like to be. It’s a nuanced take on a fairly standard narrative, and so this month I’d like to talk about writing our version of the standards, trope reply, and how we tackle writing something that’s, beat for beat, a stock story.

“Biddy” lays out a very standard horror fiction plot: Someone is tormented for being different, they take a gruesome revenge, and the protagonist must stop it or succumb to it. There are versions of this story everywhere, in slushpiles, magazines, and drawers. And it’s the very standard nature of that story which highlights one of the interesting aspects of writing short fiction. Short stories are occasionally like jazz: Everyone knows the standards, but it’s what we do with them, as writers, that shows our grasp of our craft.

And “Biddy” shows off its craft well, from the very first scene. As well as setting the stage for the theme of the incident with Bethany, the story of the chickens establishes a fantastic and instant sense of atmosphere. The conflict is established in miniature: the protagonist’s viciousness, his understanding that it’s wrong, and his resulting shame. When Bethany and her siblings come on the scene, the parallels between her and that chick are instantly visible, and the question becomes whether history will repeat itself, or whether the protagonist will manage to find his way out of the moral loop he’s caught himself in. We know what the story is by the end of Scene One. Watching how it will play out in a higher-stakes situation is the source of all the tension through the rest of the story.

That tension is complemented by the prose and voice. There’s a lot of writing advice about writing in dialect—mostly on what not to do—but “Biddy” is a great example of a regional voice done well. The protagonist’s voice is natural and coherent, and his regionalisms are baked in: the rhythm of his storytelling voice, the expressions he uses, and the choice of metaphors all ground him in his time and place.

Combined with some ominously gorgeous imagery—I especially liked the ice-capped peaks of the mountains rose in great biting stony teeth above the tree line—the prose style serves to render someone who’s very much part of his landscape and family, very observant, very smart, and unashamed of any of those parts of him. Our narrator in “Biddy” is a three-dimensional character, complicated, regretful, thoughtful, deftly funny (“nothing under his hat but hair and a perpetual grudge” is great), and tangled in his own delicate social dynamics. What’s more, he’s layered by the fact that the story’s told from a later point in time. There’s an implicit character arc in the contrast between the protagonist’s actions at the time, and the shame his later perspective coats those actions with, making him even more nuanced. More than anything else, the way all these effects combine into a character that’s thoroughly real makes “Biddy” work.

That said, I suspect “Biddy” might still not be the easiest to place. It’s occupying an interesting space: a plot that’s perhaps too traditional for boundary-pushing markets, and a reply to the tropes of horror fiction might prove a little too much for the most traditional horror markets.

What, specifically, “Biddy” has to say for itself—what it has to say about the trope of the teenage girl turning monstrous and taking revenge, and the handling of guilt that horror concerns itself with—is extremely subtle. While I hesitate to say it, because “Biddy” is very much a complete story in and of itself, and I’m not sure if tinkering with it at this point is the right decision, it might be too subtle for the editors who would appreciate what it’s quietly saying about the response to having done wrong.

There is so much to be said for the fact that the protagonist forgoes his dreams and gets stuck, just like every single one of the boys who tormented Biddy; just like Biddy herself, and her siblings. His college education doesn’t get him where he’s going, because of where he’s from and how he speaks and the money he doesn’t have. He ends up scarred and back on the ranch for life. And yet it’s what he does with that disappointment that’s so fascinating to me: In a school full of mean boys and a town full of drunk and gossiping adults, our narrator never gets mean. Instead he considers the rifle, and sets it aside. He takes responsibility. He grows up.

It’s a powerful take on how to handle the question of guilt and violence that horror discusses. It’s a thing worth saying. And while I’m suggesting it with reservations, because again—the fabric of “Biddy” is so well woven that I’m not sure it’s worth disrupting—it may be worthwhile to experiment with bringing that idea just a heartbeat more forward, making its clues just a touch stronger and easier to catch. In the question of how to get around the reflex of oh, same old story, I’m pretty sure this is the answer, but done delicately, with tweezers.

So: I do apologize for how inconclusive this critique has ended up. It’s hard to speak helpfully on a story that’s well done, but that I suspect, just by virtue that it’s been done, is going to be hard to place. If the right editor doesn’t connect with this piece, after a dozen or twenty markets tried, I’d rewrite with an eye to what makes “Biddy” new: what advances the conversation this trope is having, what it has to say, what it’s putting forward.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Talisman And Bone by Karen Kobylarz

I had to choose this piece for this month’s Editor’s Choice—it’s in so many of my wheelhouses. Secondary world based strongly on Earth history, opening in an alternate Tyre, with mentions of Egypt and the ancient Middle East. A hint of adjacent or alternate worlds—one moon or three. There’s so much to love.

The writing is lovely, too, with occasional images that made me stop and go, “Oh, nice!” This, for example: A hint of smoke and jasmine lingered in the air. Or this: I tried to call out, but the storm stole my voice. And this, too: I reached and pulled the weapon free, the white light of Creation’s power sheening its black surface.

There’s a true love of words here, and a strong music in the prose. It’s a pleasure and occasionally a revelation to read.

The writing is very fine, but there’s still work to do. The author’s note on the draft mentions that an editor found the protagonist hard to relate to. I don’t necessarily have that problem, but what I do see might call for a kind of inversion of the usual rules for strong writing.

Keep your writing active, we’re told. Eschew the passive and the abstract. Focus on the concrete. Gravitate toward clear, vivid, memorable images and active constructions.

This is excellent advice in the main. Here I think we may need to relax the rules a bit, keeping the lovely images but moving a bit away from the consistently concrete. That’s the basis of the issue with the protagonist, I think.

She is very active. She’s a doer. She observes and comments and acts and reacts. She seems to have agency, in that she has goals and an agenda, though there’s a fair element of inadvertence in how she goes about achieving them.

What’s missing for me is a sense of emotional depth, of being inside her skin. The story is strongly cinematic—that is, we see and hear what’s going on; we’re shown surface actions and external results, so we have hints of what’s happening underneath. We don’t actually break through the wall into her inner thoughts and feelings. We have a predominance of the concrete, but there’s not quite enough of the abstract or intuitive to balance it.

I chose the quotations above for their beauty but also because they illustrate what’s going on with the storytelling overall. While she appears to act, she’s really being acted upon. Inanimate objects and forces of nature carry the weight of the story. I think we need to go another layer or more below this and show the emotional landscape: the deeper effects on her of the things that are happening around and to her. Let these things happen, but let us see them through the filter of her senses and feelings. We have the data, but we wonder how she’s processing it.

The plotting runs into this issue as well. Her departure from Tyre is reactive—her husband is killed and she has to flee, but while she’s acting and speaking, we have to extrapolate what she’s feeling. She might be numb, that would be a natural first response, but as a reader I want to be sure that’s what’s happening.

When she raises her powers to invoke the storm, its strongest effects happen offstage—and past the initial impetus, her role is essentially passive. We jump from storm to shipwreck, but might benefit from a suitably concise experience of the disaster, with a stronger sense of how it makes her feel and how she may be trying to regain the control she’s lost–or perhaps she’s not trying, but giving up, as once again her magic betrays her. That may seem like a passive response, but it’s a choice. In emotional terms, it’s active.

The questions this reader is impelled to ask, here as elsewhere in the story, are about penetrating the surface and going down into her inner world. What does she feel? How do these events affect her on a deeper level?

The ending has great potential, though her quest to find her own, three-mooned world could be more strongly grounded in character and story. Is it a major motivator, or is it more incidental? Evidently it’s been delayed by her marriage and her stay in Tyre, and now she’s stopping again. I feel as if the stakes at this point could be higher, and she could have more difficulty making the choice—and the choice itself could be clearer. She should make it because she truly chooses to, because she has solid and compelling reasons, rather than because there’s a vacancy and someone needs to fill it.

This comes back to the question of agency. She does a lot of things, but does she do them on her own initiative or because circumstances compel her? What are her strongest driving motivations? What mix of emotions and needs and desires drives her to do what she does?

I don’t think this needs a lot of exposition, nor any purpling of the prose, but if she feels as clearly as she acts and speaks, that may help to resolve the issue of relatability. Readers like to feel as if they’re inside a character’s skin, living the events of the story with her. A little more inside to go with the outside, and this already well-written story will be even more powerful and effective.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Garden Of Purgatory C4C Revised by Robin Zell

I like the concept of this piece a lot, would love to read a novel about the cats. Beginning with a prologue about how the cats got to where they are in Chapter One makes sense to me, and if done well, will both pull the reader in and provide background for the events of the novel proper.

What I’m seeing in this version is a case of concept pulling ahead of character. That’s where the emphasis on dialogue is coming from, I think. Linda is the mechanism for explaining the situation. Harold is the foil, to whom the situation is explained. Even when he’s not there, Linda’s internal monologue revolves around her fundamental dislike for him, interspersed with passages of exposition and background.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with two incompatible people figuring out how to survive after a spaceship crash, but first a worldbuilding question: Would the people responsible for selecting crews be that irresponsible about this match? Why are these two specific people here, now, on this particular ship?

There’s some mention of this in the draft, including the allusion to cost-cutting, but I think it needs more grounding in background and motivation. It can still be a stupid and wrongheaded decision, but I think the story needs more layers. More reason for it to have happened this way. More complexity in the how and why.

This doesn’t need more explanation in the narrative so much as more grounding in the underpinnings of world and story. That I think would include rethinking Harold: what he knows, how he knows it, how he handles the crisis. As written, he’s very much Linda’s intellectual inferior, and he doesn’t contribute much to the mission. He doesn’t have a compelling reason to be there, except for her to explain things to. We need a middle ground between Harold-knows-nothing and Linda-is-the-smart-one, and more demonstrated competence on his part.

There are various ways to make him a more effective character. He might be her match for knowledge and competence, but there’s an ongoing competition between them, sharpened by mutual dislike. In that case, the scenes between them would be more likely to involve mutual hashing out of problems and solutions, with each taking diametrically opposite positions on everything. Again there’s a hint of this dynamic in the scenes between them, but his lack of knowledge and her position as explainer and sole problem-solver feels unbalanced.

Or, his lack of knowledge and understanding might be a consequence of his rapid aging, which adds a different level of complexity to the situation. Because of what happened during the crash, Harold is cognitively incapable of doing his job. Linda has to take up the slack for both. Or even, if it’s bad enough, consider eliminating him in order to stretch their finite resources for her own survival.

If the narrative takes that direction, would Linda worry about ending up like Harold? Would there be pressure to get as much done as she can before that happens? Would she be tempted to give up? Dive into denial? Suicide?

Rethinking Linda’s scenes might help as well. Rather than presenting the facts of the crash through internal monologue, perhaps a flashback? That would be a more direct experience, and perhaps more effective. Likewise, where she thinks about what Harold is like, could we have a scene that shows it instead? Let us see for ourselves from the beginning, and better understand her problems with him.

I’d particularly like to see more of the cats. Rather than Harold relating an offstage encounter and Linda reacting, then explaining what she did, what if the encounter happens onstage and we also get to see more of Linda’s manipulations via scene and flashback? In short—show events directly, happening in real time (story present or story past), rather than indirectly through expository speeches.

Dialogue is tough. We’re encouraged to think of it an active storytelling technique, a way of heightening immediacy and immersing the reader more deeply in the relationship between characters. But if one character consistently explains and the other reacts, that can actually weaken the impact of the story. Dialogue becomes monologue (and internal monologue often accompanies dialogue-as-lecture), and the real substance of the story recedes from the reader’s awareness. She’s being told what happens rather than directly experiencing it.

Right now, in this draft, we’re still in the blocking-out stage. Linda is setting up the situation, explaining how it works. Harold is there to give her a reason to explain things. If there’s more balance between them—either they’re closer to equals or there’s a stronger reason for him to be her inferior—the story structure should sort itself out as well. More scenes in which things happen, more direct experience of events, and for sure, More Cats!

Will there be less dialogue as a result? Maybe not. But the dialogue should work harder to keep the story moving, and rely less heavily on exposition. Then it will really earn its place in the narrative.

–Judith Tarr

Site Updates!

We’re pleased to announce a pair of minor feature enhancements that members have been requesting!
  • By default, the Online Writing Workshop offers reviewers the ability to rate submissions by a number of criteria in addition to the primary critique method of entering their feedback. While some authors enjoy the “star ratings,” others do not; to enable everyone to have the workshop experience that they prefer, we’ve added the ability for authors to suppress the ratings area when reviewers critique their submissions.To disable the ratings area:
    1. Click the drop-down list next to the My Dashboard button.
    2. Click Account.
    3. In the Preferences section, select the Block reviewers from using the ratings when critiquing my submissions check box.
    4. Click Update Preferences.
  • When a reviewer saves a review in progress but does not submit it, the review remains in the Reviews section of the Dashboard. By default, if an author archives the submission, the review still remains in the Reviews section, although the reviewer cannot update it. We’ve now added the option for reviewers to hide these reviews!To suppress in-process critiques if the author shelves the submission:
    1. Click the drop-down list next to the My Dashboard button.
    2. Click Account.
    3. In the Preferences section, select the Hide draft reviews on dashboard if the author archives the submission check box.
    4. Click Update Preferences.
Note: The reviews remain on the database. If the author later unarchives the submission, the review is again displayed in the Reviews section, and the reviewer can update it.
In addition to these changes, the new Account option provides access to existing functionality in a new place, the Accounts page.
  • The Membership area displays your membership expiration date, and provides a link for you to extend your membership if you choose to do so.
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We hope you enjoy this new functionality! Please let us know what you think, and if there are any other improvements we can make for you!

Member News Of Note

OWW alumni continue to gather award nominations.

Beth Cato not only writes great fiction, she writes excellent poetry. Her long poem, “The Box of Dust and Monsters” has been nominated for a 2017 Rhysling Award.

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Obilisk Gate has been nominated for a 2017 Best Novel Nebula Award.

Fran Wilde’s novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary has been nominated for a 2017 Novelette Nebula Award.

Congratulations to all of you!