Publication News

Elizabeth Bear made a great announcement this week. Saga Press has bought her new space opera novel, Ancestral Nights, and will be publishing it here in the US in 2018. This is the first of a duology originally sold to Gollancz in the UK. Saga and Gollancz plan to publish the novel simultaneously on both sided of the Atlantic. You can read more about this news here.

Sean O`Brien sent us another exciting publishing success story: “I’ve been a member of the OWW for many years (off and on, that is). I’ve found the site an invaluable resource and have forged some lasting friendships there, as well as referred several writer friends to it. I wanted to thank all involved for your hard work in keeping the forum going. My most recent novel Beltrunner--and one which was workshopped on OWW–was published in February of this year by EDGE Publishing.” You can learn more about Sean’s novel here.

Editor’s Choice Review October 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.


Winter Winds by Jason Guinn

So many characters in fiction feel like characters rather than people. Many are characters we’ve seen hundreds of times before. Others may feel different but not real. For me, the strongest part of this novel excerpt is the character of Gail. While her martial arts skills and the suggestion that on her good days she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model make her feel familiar, those traits aren’t on display in this excerpt, so I can pretend they don’t exist. What is on display here is her personality–her natural outspokenness, her easy confidence, her no-nonsense manner, her quickness to stick up for the underdog. She feels real and appealing to me. I like her and want to spend time with her. I want to see what she does.

I would be very excited to read a novel with Gail as the protagonist. The other characters in the excerpt aren’t coming to life for me in the same way. They feel like characters, not people. Often, writers create supporting characters who are much stronger and more engaging than their main characters. Many times, this occurs because the author thinks about the internal life of the main characters, becoming deeply intertwined with them and relating to them without being able to see how the reader, who is meeting these characters for the first time, will perceive them. Authors usually think about supporting characters in a more external way–how they would look, act, interact, and come across to others. This means that authors tend to create supporting characters that a reader, meeting them for the first time, will find engaging. These are, of course, massive generalizations, but they help explain my experience in being drawn to Gail, having very little interest in Ann, and actually disliking Marty. An author may like or be fascinated by his characters, but that doesn’t mean the reader will feel the same.

For me, Ann is essentially “the girl,” the stereotype I’ve seen my entire life who holds no interest for me. The moment I read the description, her “baby doe eyes swimming with fear,” I know this is a character I don’t want to spend time with. The main traits stressed are how good looking she is, which doesn’t make me like her or Marty, who seems to care only about her appearance. I realize this is only an excerpt, and I’m sure that Ann will develop more as the novel continues, but if the excerpt doesn’t make me want to continue, then I’ll never find out. I need to see something about her in this scene that makes me interested in following her. She needs to be changed from a character to a person. Maybe she works out because she’s overweight and likes hanging out with the body builders. That could make her seem more of a real person.

Marty is another familiar character, the insecure young man afraid to talk to the pretty girl. Making him a writer only makes him more familiar, since many writers write about writers. The main trait that stands out about him is his tendency to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance. As soon as he sees someone, he notices their appearance and makes judgments about the person, often scathing judgments. There’s “a big guy with enormous flabby tits,” “a big man with a Fu Manchu straight out of a seventies porn flick . . . [a] genetic freak” and a man with a “folder, where he guessed the arrogant, brash, bumptious cocksucker kept his so-called prose.” While his judgment of Ann is positive, it is again based solely on her appearance. He doesn’t even listen to her poetry. This is not a character I’m interested in spending time with. Perhaps this is the starting point of a character arc that will show him learning to avoid judging people by their appearance and to get to know them first. But I see no sign that the excerpt is setting up such an arc. If that is the intent, then the author needs to signal that to readers, so we’ll keep reading. For example, Gail could call him on this negative trait, saying, “That girl you’re so hot about? She’s a selfish bitch who sleeps with a different guy every night and gave her handicapped kid up for adoption. That body builder you have contempt for? He has an MFA and just sold his first chapbook. You need to stop with the snap judgments and actually come out of your shell long enough to get to know someone.” This will cue the reader that the author is aware of his protagonist’s problem and the book will deal with him struggling with this problem. Another way to cue the reader would be to have one of Marty’s snap judgments be proven wrong. For example, the man with the folder could get up to the mic and read poetry that’s completely different from what Marty expected–and he could read it with a stutter, showing he’s not the cocky, assured person Marty thought. This would make me want to follow Marty through his journey.

The other issue I’d like to talk about in this critique is style. Stylistic weaknesses are another turnoff to readers–and especially editors. When an author doesn’t wield the tools of the language with skill, the reader can’t become immersed in it. Readers are constantly thrown out by confusing sentences or inappropriate word choices. This excerpt contains many spelling errors, grammatical errors, unnecessary words and phrases, and awkward sentences. I’d like to focus my discussion on the sixth paragraph of the excerpt, which I’ll paste here in its entirety, with the sentences numbered:

(1) Nestled in the center of the Empty Cup and surrounded on all sides by booths and tables, was a circular platform engulfed in smoky orange and yellow hues. (2) There were a pair of black stools and a microphone stand, and that was it. (3) The set up was as minimal. (4) For the artist collected here, everything came down to the words spoken, not the decorum. (5) Marty was certain if it was the other way around, nobody would ever set foot in the Empty Cup for fear of getting a disease. (6) It was vile place, but the coffee was cheap and the staff friendly.

My intention is just to give some specific examples to be helpful. My writing teachers always used to write “awk” all over my papers without explaining why my sentences were “awk,” which means I didn’t improve for a long time. In the first sentence, Nestled and surrounded are both words that describe the relationship between the stage and the rest of the coffee shop. You don’t need both. In addition, it’s unnecessary to say “surrounded on all sides.” The word surrounded means the items are on all sides. So this could be rewritten, “Surrounded by booths and tables, a circular platform stood in the center of the Empty Cup.” I don’t understand what “engulfed in smoky orange and yellow hues” means. I don’t know what is orange and yellow. The stage is already surrounded; I don’t think it also needs to be engulfed.

In the second sentence, the phrase “There were” is a weak phrase. The verb to be is a weak verb, since the action if describes is only being or existing (rather than running, jumping, screaming, barfing, or other more action-oriented verbs). The phrases there were or it was increase the weakness, because there and it are vague words. Starting a sentence with “There were” doesn’t tell us anything about the content of the sentence; starting a sentence with “A pair of black stools stood” gives us a strong sense of what the sentence is about and we have something to visualize. The final phrase “and that was it” doesn’t add anything.

The third sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense. Perhaps it’s intended to read “The set up was minimal,” but the previous sentence has already shown this, so it’s unnecessary.

The fourth sentence also isn’t grammatical. “Artist” should be “artists.” The word collected isn’t the right word. No one has collected them. One could say gathered instead.

The fifth sentence is quite jarring, because it doesn’t follow what’s been said. No germ sources have been described. If people did think the place was unhygienic, they wouldn’t be drinking the coffee. If people cared about the decorum over the poetry, then they’d go to somewhere classier. They wouldn’t fear getting disease. That seems like the author saying something for effect that he doesn’t really mean, and that undermines the reader’s trust in the author.

The sixth sentence requires “a” before “vile place,” but again, the excerpt hasn’t shown us the place is vile. The excerpt is telling us things that contradict what it has shown, so we’re left with contradictory ideas and little faith in the author. Every author needs to work hard to gain and maintain the trust of the reader, so the reader can believe and enjoy the story.

I hope that this provides some helpful guidance. I really enjoy the character of Gail.

—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

On The Shelves

Dust Bath Revival (Feral Seasons) by Marianne Kirby (Curiosity Quills Press, November 2016) dust-bath-revival

16-year-old Henrietta Goodness – Hank to all that know her – has heard all the stories about how the Dust made the dead rise. She’s heard about how life changed. But that was a long time ago, and Hank is ready for another normal dry and dusty Florida summer. She knows the thunder doesn’t really promise rain. Instead, Hank and her brother will do their chores, run into town as much as they can get away with, and lock up tight and safe in their Aunt Marty’s house once the sun goes down.

That’s the plan, at least, until an itinerant tent revival rolls onto their land, with a Reborn – one of the risen dead – traveling caged with them.The arrival of an unknown cousin connected to the revival starts Hank on the road to solving a mystery that even the government might not want unraveled. There’s nowhere to go when the night isn’t safe and there’s no one to trust when everyone might be part of a conspiracy to keep the Reborn walking.




Publication News

Marianne Kirby wrote to tell us: “Back in 2013, I found the Online Writing Workshop and posted the first chapter of my novel in progress (after reviewing some other submissions, of course). My submission was an Editor’s Choice for horror. I took the four reviews total I received and headed into revisions.Then I finished those revisions in 2014 when I was an Amtrak Residency fellow. And THEN my agent loved my novel. Which was followed by the quick sale of my novel.

And now – November 21st – my novel Dust Bath Revival is being published by Curiosity Quills, a small publishing house with whom I’m really enjoyed working. So that’s another success story! As I work on other projects (and the sequel to this upcoming release), I look forward to posting them for feedback. And I look forward to reviewing other submissions, too!”

Member News Of Note

Another OWW member award nomination!

Jodi Meadows’ novel, The Mirror King, is on the long list for the 2016 Young Readers Kirkus Prize. Only books that earned starred reviews on Kirkus are nominated, and winners will be selected on November 3, 2016. Best of luck, Jodi!

Grapevine/Market News

Zombies Need Brains LLC is accepting submissions to its three science fiction and fantasy anthologies SUBMERGED, ALL HAIL OUR ROBOT CONQUERORS!, and THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS. Stories for this anthology must be original (no reprints or previously published material), no more than 7,500 words in length, and must satisfy the theme of the anthology.  Payment is 6 cents a word, with possible future royalties. Full details here.

Editor’s Choice Review September 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Iniquity’s Child, Chapter 4 by Crash Froelich

I love mysteries and thrillers, and if they have an SF or supernatural twist, so much the better—so I enjoyed this chapter. It has a nice grounding in the physical setting, and I get a sense of the characters, notably the protagonist and Spooky, who has a manic-pixie-dreamgirl vibe about her.

What I’d like to talk about in this Editor’s Choice crit is a particular aspect of craft: Dialogue.

Dialogue is an interesting animal. Some writers can spin it off just about automatically, though for them it can become so much its own thing that it loses track of plot and pacing. Others struggle with it.

Truly realistic dialogue and fictionally realistic dialogue are two completely different things. If you go out and record actual conversations, there’s very little story-meat in them. They mostly consist of what I call filler: Hello, how are you, what are you up to, I’m fine, nothing much, and so on. These preprogrammed phrases serve as social lubricants, and provide transitions into and out of human interactions, but they don’t as a rule convey actual, unique or relevant information.

In fiction, there’s this thing called narrative economy. The writer pares away extraneous details and focuses as directly as possible on the themes, actions, words, and concepts that are directly relevant to the plot and help to move it forward. He may scatter the text with red herrings, especially if he’s writing a mystery or telling the story through an unreliable narrator, but those details are also carefully chosen to misdirect and distract. They’re there for a reason.

Or to put it another way, the story we read is the good-parts version. Everything else either exists in the background or simply doesn’t need to be there.

Dialogue works the same way. If anything, because spoken words stand out so dramatically from the surrounding text, it’s even more important to prune away the excess. The reader will fill it in as applicable, or the writer can do so with a quick line or so of framing. Then what’s actually on the page is the information that moves the story from that scene to the next.

New information, or new light on information already conveyed, is the engine that drives plot. Dialogue is a great way to make this happen, but even more than narrative and exposition, dialogue needs to be directly on point.

Readers are quite good at picking up implied information, which in dialogue would be most stock and filler phrases. That’s not to say those phrases should never be there—a well-applied bit of conversational filler can be a great vehicle for character development or narrative irony. But for the most part, if it’s not actually saying something, it doesn’t need to be said. The reader will get it, and you can get straight to the point of the conversation.

In this chapter, dialogue does several things. In the scene at the Ascendance building, Sorgen questions employees about Dr. Parsons, with a side dish of snarky interaction with the receptionist. The next scene features a subset of dialogue, a phone conversation with Spooky, during which Sorgens sets up a face-to-face meeting. A few changes of venue later, Sorgen reviews a video that conveys important information, followed by the meeting with Spooky and, shortly thereafter, Kelli. The chapter ends with a heart-to-heart in the car between Sorgen and Spooky.

Each form of dialogue tries to do a different thing. It undertakes to move the story forward, establish character and interaction, expand the protagonist’s (and therefore the reader’s) knowledge of the case, and introduce information that will be relevant later. Even coming in cold, without having read the opening chapters, I get a sense of who Sorgen and Spooky are, what they are to each other, and how the various subsidiary characters fit into the picture.

These are all excellent goals, with good support in the needs of the story. Wher the dialogue as written falls short is in the predominance of filler over substance.

This is particularly true in the Ascendance sequence. We get the throat-clearing portions of the conversation—greetings, introductions, stage business (body movements and expressions, especially), and general setup for each interrogation—but the actual interrogation happens effectively offstage, in synopsis. Here’s the bread, here’s the mayo, but there’s no meat in the sandwich.

The meat is where the story is. The dialogue that’s written can for the most part be replaced with quick sketch-and-framing segments, and what’s currently summary needs to be written as dialogue. Basically turn the scene inside out: turn dialogue into summary and summary into dialogue. And then you’ve got a living, vibrant scene with characters who come alive on the page.

I’d also, as a matter of characterization, wonder if Sandy the brassy receptionist fits the setting. Are her comments appropriate to the corporate culture of which she is the immediate public face? Is Sorgen responding appropriately in light of who they both are and what his job is? Would Sandy say the things about her boss that she says to Sorgen, in that setting, where she could easily be overheard? Does this make sense? Is it part of your overall plan? If so, you might clarify that her extremely loose lips are a plot and/or she’s a mole, and this is a performance designed to elicit some information or action that will help resolve the case.

The fondness for filler carries on through the rest of the scenes which feature dialogue. Do you really need all of the details in the phone conversation, for example? Can it be shorter and punchier, while still conveying his very avuncular relationship with her (which is borderline creepy—if not intentional, maybe tone it down)? Do you need the hello-goodbye parts? Can you just get right in and then when it’s done, shift scene without losing any key information?

The later segments of dialogue move more quickly, though Kelli arrives and leaves a bit too fast to keep up with—you might frame that a little more solidly. I wonder too, as her conversations with Sorgen evolve, if Spooky is a little too little-girl in the way she talks and acts. Is she running a con? Is he in on it, or is he in denial? Do you want her to come on so strongly?

How old is she, exactly? She talks as if she’s prepubescent. This is something that’s probably established in the earlier chapters—it just caught my eye here, in the way she talks and acts. She seems very young, emotionally if not physically. The words she uses and the way she looks and moves point to immaturity and dependence on the protective Uncle Ricky.They might also, in a fuller context, point to her manipulation of him through plays on his sympathy and his protective or fatherly instincts.

All in all, I see plenty of potential here, especially once the dialogue comes into its own. A little less filler, a little more story-stuff, and you’ll be good to go.

–Judith Tarr


Publication News

Christine Lucas sends great news: “My short story “Pinch of Chaos” has been accepted to the “In Cat’s Eye” anthology. This story is very dear to my heart, since it was the first I started back in early 2015, after my long hiatus, and the first one I posted in OWW after my return. Many thanks to all who critted.”

Editor’s Choice Review September 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

My Lady, Malady, Mad Lady by RM Graves

This story grabbed my attention from the first paragraph and kept me interested until the last.  So many stories feel so familiar, it’s great when a story surprises me or heads in an unexpected direction.  The description of the narrator “spreading out” is awesome.  On the other hand, I read many stories that seem like they’re trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, not because they have something to say.  What I appreciate most about “My Lady, Malady Mad Lady” is that the surreal elements ultimately provide a payoff, an insight into human nature, rather than just showing me a bunch of weird stuff and leaving me with nothing more.

I do think that payoff could be strengthened , though.  For me, the ending suggests that the narrator’s obsession with helping his family climb up out of a hole has made him too inwardly focused.  He has been missing what’s important–the external world and his family–by focusing on this perhaps non-existent problem.  I like that, but I don’t feel the earlier part of the story sets this up as well as it might.  If the problem is his obsession with this hole, what happened before the beginning of the story to trigger or escalate his worry?  It seems as if he has thought of life as a climb up a cliff for a long time.  But something must have happened to increase his fear of failing at this climb.  Did he feel his father was helping, or would help with an inheritance upon his death, but the inheritance was quickly spent and they are in more debt than ever?  Has he lost his job or have his hours cut back?  I think you could make a reference to something like this early in the story.

Some of the details also don’t seem to work with the ending.  When the narrator relates that his eyes would “sometimes roll to the back of [his] head when [he]rested on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon,” that makes he think that his contemplation of the hole is something he does for relaxation and recreation.  Instead, I would think that his eyes would do that when he’s at work, when he is paying the bills, when anyone in his family asks for anything, at night, as well as on Sunday afternoons when he’s trying to relax but can’t.  Instead of resting on the sofa, I think he would be pacing or distracted.

His realization that he is climbing down instead of up seems a passing thought, when I think it should be a horrifying motivator.  He ought to be desperately trying to figure out how to flip it around, instead of just thinking that once and dropping it.  How does he think he can turn it around?  Worrying about this can escalate his obsession with this hole further.

The narrator seems too passive at times.  If this concern has frozen him into inaction, so all he can do is worry, that needs to be clearer.  When he finally does act, going to the doctor and then the Mad Lady, I don’t really believe he would do it.  I understand his wife is pushing him, but I think he needs his own reason to go.  Maybe he sees that his transformation is getting worse.  Maybe his penis is disappearing or something similar to escalate his problem and make him desperate enough to try something he hasn’t been willing to do before.

I think some changes like these will make the ending feel more “right” and will also make it more powerful.

I hope my comments are helpful.  I really enjoyed the bizarre images and the theme.

–Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey