Writing Challenge/Prompt

Everyone around you looks like a living, breathing person. Your family, your friends, and the person you’re falling in love with all feel real. Your heart tells you this is true.

Occasionally, something you see or hear makes you doubt your heart. To make it worse, your head keeps asking uncomfortable questions.

Put a character in the middle of that 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

 Cemetery Dance magazine is accepting submissions from June 5, 2018 until July 5, 2018 from authors who have never sold a story to the magazine before. If you’ve already had a story accepted for publication in the magazine, please wait for the next reading period. They are looking for stories up to 5,000 in length, and pay is pro rates. Full submission guidelines are here.

PodCastle is open for submissions until June 30th. They are looking for stories up to 6,000 words, and pay 6 cents per word. Full submission guidelines are here.

Editors Choice June 2018, 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.

As Day Follows Night by Karen Kobylarz

The school of fantasy that contains “As Day Follows Night”—Sword and Sorceress, DAW Books, and rigorously systematized magic—isn’t normally my cup of tea as a reader. However, this month I found myself drawn to this piece’s stakes, clarity, and the way it renders messy relationships with compassion—without sacrificing its identity as an accessible piece of adventure fantasy.

“As Day Follows Night” takes care to immediately establish a universe that, while it has strict magical, hierarchical, and economic formalities, contains an ocean of nuance when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Idhon is a messy antagonist-mentor, looked down upon for his rumoured exploitation of the Initiates, but acting out of a backstory steeped in love, pain, and responsibility. Marha’s immediate impression of Kilha—someone she loves like a sister and yet has clearly spent enough time cleaning up after to react with “No, no, no. Kilha had given up her impetuous ways”—is juxtaposed with Kilha’s actual motives, which are satisfyingly complex. And Marha is asked to make a choice that has no clean resolution.

It’s nonetheless a cycle-breaking choice, and ends with a distinct note of hope. That resolution’s deeply satisfying, as are details like the gross-delightful weirdness of Sebhina as a cat, and how a magic force that privileges life over all else would deal with something like cancer.

There are some issues I’d suggest could be looked at to bring this piece up to fuller potential, though, and they mostly revolve around honing the story’s strong points to privilege internal consistency.

The first: the narrative’s treatment of Idhon. He’s initially described as strapping and stalking, a character full of barely leashed grabbiness and violence—which evaporates entirely once they start talking about the Crystal (although he’s incredibly handsy with Marha even after they’re cooperating, and he still blackmails her). There’s a point early on where, after “As Day Follows Night” establishes that Idhon isn’t an antagonist per se, Marha seems to just let these behaviours go—for example, Marha follows him alone into a room away from the rest of the Initiates without hesitation and doesn’t talk back when he threatens her—and those two things don’t add up. She has years of gossip, disapproval, and fear to draw upon, and its abrupt vanishing feels off to me.

I’d suggest looking for a little more consistency in his affect, or Marha’s reactions to him—or perhaps both. I’m not suggesting flattening Idhon, but looking through his reactions and emotional arc from an internal point of view to ensure they’re consistent, and establishing a consistent arc for how Marha thinks of him and reacts to his pressures on her.

I’d also suggest making sure the piece is putting enough trust in the readers. In Idhon and Marha’s first exchange, it’s clear from the dialogue how sarcastic Idhon is being; it may well be unnecessary to explicitly point it out instead of letting the tonality carry the impression. Likewise, in “Marha grimaced. His harsh tone turned the quivery sensation into a gut-punch,” I’d suggest cutting the first sentence and looking at the impact the second has, standing alone; in “Marha took another step back, her head shaking in denial,” it’s clear what a shake of the head means.

There’s more than economy of language in play here: Letting readers fill in those emotions means they’re mirroring, they’re using their empathy, they’re making a reach toward Marha, and it helps readers invest in the story and her to relate their own emotional content to hers.

I’d suggest that economy of language is a priority, though, mostly to tighten up the pacing in the middle acts of the piece. Once Marha fights off Sebhina and goes searching through the cave, I’m skimming somewhat until Kilha mentions their grandmother is ill; I’m skimming again once their grandmother tells them, in flashback, about the Crystal. It’s the second scene of exposition on the nature of the Crystal readers have, in a very short space, and I’d suggest that time backfilling is sometimes time spent not moving forward. While those are the main spaces I’d focus on, I’d suggest it’s plausible to get 1,000 words out of “As Day Follows Night” just by tightening, and that doing so would keep the pace lively.

I’d also look for a consistency in the invented terminology used: the sun is “the sun” sometimes, and “the day-star” others, for example—and a reason for each. Does anything in this story actually rely on knowing what the in-world name for creative power is? I’d suggest a read through the piece for when invented or metaphoric terminology is a major contributor to the plot or worldbuilding, and when it’s perhaps doing more to just fill space.

There are aspects of “As Day Follows Night” I’m going to withhold comment on: the way invented spellcraft-language operates in a universe that’s short story-sized, for example, or where winged cats and crystals and bad guys throwing lightning at good guys are as tropes in the wider conversation right now. They’re aspects of the piece that don’t connect with me as a reader, but I’m well aware that they’re also cornerstones of this particular subgenre. My slight dislike is going to be another reader’s absolute pleasure.

What I would recommend is finding someone with a keen eye who’s a fan of this flavour of fantasy to evaluate those elements; they’ll be much more effective at communicating whether they’re firing on all cylinders, and that dual feedback will prevent some aspects of “As Day Follows Night” from being more noticeably polished than others.

Overall, though, “As Day Follows Night” is cleanly written, engaging, and a piece that manages to work as light and accessible reading without being lightweight or unsatisfying.

Best of luck with it!

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

 

On The Shelves

My Plain Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton (Harper Teen June 2018) 

You may think you know the story. Penniless orphan Jane Eyre begins a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester—and, Reader, she marries him. Or does she? Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions in this stand-alone follow-up to My Lady Jane.

 

Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor Books June 2018) 

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own. Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas (Harper Collins June 2018) 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2018, 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.

One Thousand And One Daybreaks (Part 1 Of 2) by Lo Kwa

First of all, apologies for the technical screwup. When I nominated this section of the story, the system bounced me to part 2. I had to re-nominate, but there was no way to cancel the original nomination. So this first half is my Editor’s Choice for this month, and I apologize for any confusion.

I was drawn to this submission by the title—I’ve always been fascinated by the Thousand and One Nights—and drawn into it by the exquisite writing and the pure meta of a story about a world that is a storyteller’s story. The nonlinear structure works for me; the shifts of tense from present to past help to clarify the distinction between story-past and story-present, and it’s clear from the beginning that the story will shuttle in and out through various levels of story-time.

What makes it work is the sharp clarity of the protagonist’s motivation. She wants out, and she is doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Her ferocious concentration could almost be monotonous, as could her continuous series of failures. But just as I started to think that the circle needed to break, the excerpt ended with exactly that: the women and the two children.

A story of this quality needs to be absolutely on point, and for the most part it is. Before it goes out on submission (as I believe it should), I would recommend a thorough copyedit, and in revision, close attention to the finer details of grammar and diction.

A few examples caught my eye.

the larger, more expensive institution: It’s not completely clear what this refers to. Almost immediately we’re told about the academy, but I’m still wondering: larger than what? More expensive than what? A little clarification might help.

the wood is a little too intensely itself, assembled of a few lovingly-rendered details that do not leave room for the rest, both more and less what what she thought a wood should be: This is not a quibble (except for the proofreading note on the reduplicated what) but a little swoon. Such a lovely evocation of the worldbuilder’s dilemma: to provide enough details for the sense of a complete world, but neither so many that the narrative drowns in them, nor so few that the reader is left with gaps and confusion.

Niya’s hair has hung to her waist like a thick, glossy pane: I’m not sure that pane works in this context. I presume it refers to a windowpane, but the metaphor stretches a bit thin.

A double-double here: kneeling beside and opening the chest, and then a few lines down, her chest is tight with dread. Are we meant to see the large box as somehow connected to or symbolic of her torso? Or is this a word-echo, an artifact of the drafting process?

The grass is spackled with legend blossoms: I love the legend blossoms; they’re a beautiful piece of worldbuilding. I wonder about the word “spackled,” however. Is this meant to be speckled as in “spotted,” or is the image that of spackle laid over a sheet of drywall to fill in the gaps and the nail-holes?

eyes averted just enough to ensure that her reflection is centered: This feels a bit inside-out, as if averted wants to mean its opposite. Looking sidewise, avoiding direct gaze, but glimpsing just enough of the mirror to be sure that she’s where she wants to be. She’s looking at the mirror, but just enough; rather than away from it, which is what averted means.

There is no more time to waste on wishing that she could change the past. Here too I feel as if the sentence wants to mean the opposite of what it says. She wants to change the past. That’s what she’s been doing, over and over. I see how this might imply she’s no longer wasting time wishing, she’s going ahead and doing it, but the structure of the idiom points in another direction.

bittering the hollow carved out by failure: I’m not sure the verbing of the adjective bitter works here. I like that it’s concise, but still.

the pleasantly guarded air of a man who has always known that he is too intelligent to be understood: I’m not sure how pleasant such a man is likely to be, though he’s certainly likely to be guarded. Perhaps it’s that he’s deliberately amiable, even while he’s walled in on himself?

Having relived this exchange many times, it is obvious to Niya that: The irony of this dangling participle is that it appears in a context of “exactitude in language.” “It” has not relived this exchange, but Niya has. “It is obvious to Niya, who has relived this exchange many times….”

The whisper sounded like she had dragged: Few writers use the word like correctly any more, and this excerpt has multiple examples. Like is a preposition. It takes an object, either word or clause, as in, “The whisper sounded like a shout,” or, “The whisper sounded like a roar in the silence of the cavern.” Here, the correct form is, “The whisper sounded as if she had dragged…”

A voice cracks open. The words are familiar for all the wrong reasons. I’m not sure what’s happening here. What exactly is the voice doing? And whose is it? It seems to be one of the sisters’, but then it appears to be Niya’s, and it seems to be Niya who next speaks. There’s a bit of clarification missing, as to who is doing what. Is the voice saying the words quoted below it, or other words, or wordless sounds, or…?

He looks enough like a breathing illustration: I’m not sure how enough fits in here. Enough of what? Relative to what? Can the sentence do without it?

silken black tendrils twisting about the pale knife of her face as if underwater: This is a lovely image, but it skirts the edge of mixing metaphors, between the tendrils, the knife, and the water.

The sun slides down towards the tree-line like a cooling stain. I’m not sure what the image is aiming for. Stain of what? Why cooling? It’s almost as if it’s lava, but lava isn’t usually referred to as a stain. And stains aren’t usually mobile in this way, unless they’re spreading—but cooling doesn’t connect particularly closely with that particular concept.

grove again…assault again…bored again: This looks like a set of word-echoes, and perhaps unintentional?

All of these are just questions and quibbles. Some may be meant to be there, others may want correction or revision. Either way, the story itself is lovely, and structurally I believe it works. I would definitely read on. Will Niya finally escape? Or will she trapped forever in the storyteller’s hell? Or is there a third fate, which we’ll see in the next installment? I’ll be interested to find out.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2018, 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.

Simulation – The Universe Within – Chapter 1 – Vance ‘Mac’ Davis by Mark Reeder

There’s a lot to like here. I can tell the author has put a great deal of thought into all the elements, from prose style to worldbuilding to characterization. The present tense doesn’t get in the way for me; it’s neutral, neither inappropriate nor intrusive. Nor am I perturbed by “non-typical” phrasing, though the intro led me to expect more of it than I found in the ms.

I do wonder somewhat about the cosmic rays. They come across to me as a placeholder: a general term for phenomena that might be described more specifically by an expert in the field. A layperson might use the generic term, but an expert would break it down into components, and talk about those components, as he tries to figure out what is happening and how and why. It’s one of those things that makes the difference to a reader between “author threw in concept to make story go” and “author knows a lot about concept and is dropping in a few key details that indicate the breadth and depth of his knowedge.” These details don’t need to be numerous. Two or three will do it, if they’re the right ones.

In terms of plot and characters, kudos for making a genuine effort to portray diverse characters, and what’s more, to tell the story through, and about, a disabled protagonist. Both of these are not easy to do.

The hard part when writing outside the white-male-cis-het-USian box is to know how to describe characters, both physically and in in terms of their linguistic and cultural context. The tendency to view white-male-cis-het-USian as default means that sometimes a writer tries a little too hard to make it clear that the character is not one or more of these things. So, here, we’re told frequently that both Davis and Singh are not white, that their skin is dark. On the one hand it’s good to address the tendency to view a character as default-white, but on the other, does the reader need to be reminded as often as she is here? Or to put it another way, would a white character’s skin color be referenced as often as these characters’?

I would suggest reviewing Singh’s portrayal in general and watching for racial and cultural stereotypes. He smiles a lot, and he’s quite ingratiating, which is a trope often applied to marginalized and colonialized characters. Add this to the fact we’re reminded so often that he’s Other, he’s non-default in his dress and skin tone, and the overall effect may actually undermine the attempt at diversity. Default is still white and USian, and that’s the perspective of the narrative, even though the viewpoint character is nominally non-white.

Female characters can trip up a writer as well. There’s a lovely lack of male gaze in the description of Caroline—she’s not sexualized, she’s described as she is, and while she’s not likable, that’s fine; neither is Davis. But the unnamed woman in the final scene leads with her breasts. Male gaze, like white gaze, is persistent, so much so that it creeps in even when a writer is trying deliberately not to do it. My question here is, does the woman really need to be sexualized? If so, why? Is the answer to what question essential to the development of the story? And can we get a sense of this in the narrative?

Finally, Davis is a disabled man, and his disability is a key element of the plot. I think it’s smart to portray him as a cranky bastard who became disabled as an adult and has spent much of his life trying to become non-disabled. So much of disability narrative is either inspiration porn or miraculous-cure fantasy. For actual disabled people, this is rage-inducing.

But, I think Davis just about gets away with it. The way he’s framed, the needs and emotions that drive him, make it work. I like the fact that the cure is anything but instant, and that when he finally does get it, he has to seriously work at it. That’s good.

There are stylistic and copyediting bits that I could quibble—length of paragraphs, choice of words and phrases, the location of a frown (no, it’s not the mouth, it’s the forehead and eyebrows)—but I think at this stage it may be more useful to focus on the underlying racial, cultural, and gender assumptions, and to work on fine-tuning those. The will to do it is clearly there; it’s just a matter of going deeper and paying closer attention to default assumptions.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award May 2018, 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.

Some People Smell Roses by Anne Wrightwell

Many writers think the purpose of description is to help the reader imagine the events.  While that is certainly one purpose, description has many other purposes and potentials.  “Some People Smell Roses” uses descriptive details as emotional timebombs.   Two details in particular, a “noisy, blond toddler playing planes, zooming around” and a black leather jacket the protagonist’s boyfriend is wearing.  These help the reader imagine the events at the moment when they’re first introduced.  And though the reader doesn’t realize it, the timebombs have been planted.  When the protagonist, who knows the plane they are all about to board will crash, fails to stop the flight or save anyone beside herself, these details return with new power:  “Sometimes, I just dream about his black leather jacket lazily drifting down towards the sea.  Sometimes, I see the blond toddler with his arms outstretched flying through the air, laughing.”  That’s very nice.

Some other areas of the story could be strengthened.  A descriptive detail that is weak is the “horrible scent of death.”  This doesn’t fulfill that first purpose of description, allowing the reader to imagine the smell.  We are told that the smell is “horrible,” “disgusting,” “overwhelming.”  Those are all judgments, or telling, rather than sensory details, or showing.  Is it a meaty smell?  Does it smell like a mix of urine and chocolate?  The author’s job here is to provide vivid sensory details that lead the reader to conclude that the smell is horrible, rather than shortcutting the process and just saying it’s horrible.

Another area that could be strengthened is the plot.  Once the protagonist smells the smell and knows the plane is going to crash, she tries to warn her boyfriend, but he refuses to delay his trip along with her.  She considers warning others but fears she’ll be branded a hoaxer, a terrorist, or crazy.  So she does nothing.

I find it believable that she would fear warning others, but I think she has other options she’s not exploring.  And the story isn’t as engaging and suspenseful as it might be when the protagonist doesn’t actively struggle to achieve her goal.  In the current version, the smell is so bad it makes her vomit.  So she could, for example, get on the plane, where the smell would be even more concentrated, and vomit there.  The plane would then have to be delayed.  If she vomited on carpet and other hard-to-clean items, they’d probably have to take everyone off the plane and take it out of service for a few hours for cleaning.  Then she would have succeeded at saving everyone.  (The plane might crash later with new passengers on board, but at least she’d have tried.)  Maybe she tries this but the nice flight attendant cleverly catches the vomit in a sick bag so there is no mess and only the protagonist is taken off.

Maybe she attempts to execute this plan, but the smell is so bad on the jetway that she vomits there, and the flight attendants take her off, and the plane can still take off as scheduled.

Or the protagonist could look for a phone so she could call in a bomb threat to the plane (without incriminating herself by using her cell phone) to stop it from taking off, but either not find a phone or not reach the right person fast enough.

These could create a more engaging and suspenseful plot, but I’m not sure they fit your goal.  From the ending, the story seems to about missed opportunities and guilt.  If that is what it’s about, then I think you need to characterize the protagonist throughout as someone who misses opportunities.  Perhaps she’s slow to come up with ideas.  Maybe she’s fearful, or selfish, or had a crazy aunt who would warn people about death and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.  Maybe she’s terrified of dying, and that’s why she can smell death, and she fears that if she warns someone, she’ll die instead.  Maybe she just panics in a crisis and can’t think clearly.  I think she could be characterized more strongly, so we understand why her destiny is to have this power and not use it to save anyone.  You have great opportunities for characterization in the exposition about the two previous incidents where she smelled death.  Right now, those incidents are used mainly to establish her power.  But, like description, they could do more.  They could show some key component to her character that makes her the one person who could stop death but probably never will.

The final paragraph, in which the protagonist wonders if she was meant to save the passengers, and that’s the only reason she was given the ability to sense impending death, is interesting, but it doesn’t make sense to me unless she has now lost the power.  If she has lost the power–which she could confirm in a hospital–then that would imply it was tied to the airplane.  But if she still has the power, then she now knows enough to try using it to save people.  There’s no reason the airplane is her last chance to do good, so the ending doesn’t quite make sense.

I think the plot could use a little more of a twist still.  When I read this, I thought of the movie Final Destination, which involves someone who knows a plane is going to crash and tries to convince people not to get on board.  To distinguish this story more from that, I think you could take it one more step.  If the protagonist is someone who panics in a crisis and can’t think out all the possible courses of action until later, then the plot could unfold much as it does now, except at the end, she could think of all the possible actions she could have taken and didn’t think of in time.  That could be really haunting, even moreso if she has lost the power.  And it would be easy to relate to.  I think all of us have thought of some great thing to say or do in a situation 24 hours too late, and only wished we could go back and do it.  It’s just that for us, lives aren’t at stake.

Finally, I’ll just mention that the story is missing some required commas, which makes me stumble over sentences, and is wordy in some places.

The story kept me interested all the way through, and those descriptive details at the end carried a lot of power.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Imagine taking shelter from a snowstorm in an abandoned cottage. There is wood stacked next to the fireplace, a box of matches on the mantel, and blankets in a round topped chest against the wall. Warm and safe, you fall asleep in front of the fire.

You wake to a summer day.

Put a character in the middle of that scenario and write a story about what they do next.

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).