Grapevine/Market News

Upon a Once Time anthology is open for submissions from July 1, 2020-February 28, 2021.  They are looking for stories where you choose two of your favorite fairy tales, and a genre of your choice, and mash them up to make something new. Stories may be of any genre (SF, Grimdark, New Weird–anything) as long as they incorporate two fairy tales. They are looking for stories between 1,000-3,000 words and paying 8 cents per word. Full details here. 

The Wild Hunt Anthology is also open for submission from July 2, 2020-February 28,2021. They are looking for stories that incorporate that incorporate the theme of the Wild Hunt, in any genre. Stories should be between 1,000-3,000 words and they are paying 8 cents per word. Full details here. 

Editor’s Choice Award July 2020, 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.

Automata Part I of II by Joseph Ahn

The moody worldbuilding in “Automata” caught my attention this month: a muted, constantly shapeshifting story set in a postapocalyptic world trembling like a soap bubble, painted against stark, striking imagery: twisted metal against soft orange skies. However, the author’s concern about its length dovetailed with my own about its wandering, constantly-shifting plot, and so this month I’d like to talk about pacing and deciding which of a world’s many strands is the story.

There’s a lot to play with, narratively, in “Automata”: Barda and Vela’s relationship, the mystery of the automata, the broken oscillator, the missing people, the crisis of leadership in the commune. All of these questions have enough proverbial meat on them to potentially make the central plotline of a story in this world—or at least half of one.

However, since the author’s notes ask about condensing wordcount here, that profusion of questions and potential conflicts is also the first place I go when considering that issue: how are those questions interacting with each other, and is there a way to make them interact that would compress this from 10,000 words to something more manageable?

The conflicts or challenges in “Automata” string together consecutively: plots tagging in and out instead of subplots supporting or weaving through a main question or thoroughline. There’s a great deal done to set up the problem with the oscillator, which only proves to be a setup for the problem of the leadership and then the automaton murder, which only proves to be a setup for the quest to find Panu, which only sets up the problem of the dreaming queen. It’s all neatly causal—things aren’t just necessarily happening in a string but are leading into each other with a solid logic—but it takes a while for “Automata” to get where it’s actually going (Barda’s parents and being happy with where he is, with Vela) and the questions at the beginning don’t necessarily have a relationship with the questions at the end. To this reader, it feels as if they’ve (tidily) drifted toward a conclusion, rather than deliberately resolved a question that was at least implied in the first pages.

The second half almost morphs genre, into cosmic horror/grimdark from the dreamy postapocalyptic SF, and while there’s nothing wrong with being flexible, I find myself wanting at least the seeds of that world sown in the first half, so that when it shows up, it feels like a satisfying payoff, not a surprising sharp turn—so they’re in relationship.

I think there’s a way to bring everything here into alignment—and that having a story in this space isn’t atypical of early or middle drafts, where we figure out all possible universes of the story before deciding which one we want to use. The major question I’d suggest asking: What is the action of the story? What does it want to specifically explore, discuss, illuminate? It’s when we figure out what we do want to say that we can start arranging the rest to support it, reflect it, embroider it—or just see what doesn’t run in the same direction and file that for another piece.

There is some material that, I think, could probably be condensed or outright stripped out: Vela and Barda’s journey underground diverts into more standard tropes about subways, sewers, and the Fall of the World Before, which stands out strongly against the more specific, unique-feeling worldbuilding of the first half. I know the author’s notes mention this is an older story, and there was little way to tell which tropes would age in that time, but trimming with an eye to what the rest of the subgenre assumes as true—what you can just imply now and let readers do the rest—would definitely save wordcount.

Likewise, there’s a good strategy in asking what “Automata” might look like if the same questions were layered instead of tackled consecutively, one after the other. How can those conflicts inform each other and weave through each other, instead of happening one after the other? Can the questions of Barda and Vela’s relationship, of Barda’s restlessness, happen within the action of the rest of the story instead of before or after it?

There’s benefits to rethinking the pacing and structure here that’ll communicate into the line-by-line level. There’s a somewhat abrupt jump from that dreamlike narrative pace into the trapped automaton’s death scene at present—it’s something that can, I think, be sorted out by folding a little more action into Barda’s ruminating earlier, and a little more reflection into that encounter.

Likewise, the hesitancy Barda has about his own emotions early on—”Something about their endless hunt inspires a strange feeling within my heart – like pity, perhaps. Maybe it is nothing more than sadness” and “It feels somehow eerie and out of place, though I cannot explain why.”—feels as if it doesn’t quite serve a strong purpose at present, but those can be accessible sites in the story to start off clues about his restless loneliness—and present the problem being home with Vela would solve.

This is structural work—basically, editing work—but I think the positive is that the material needed to make “Automata” hum is already here. It’s a question of rearranging, layering, pruning, and shaping it to go in the direction the author would like, and form a story that says, asks, resolves what’s most satisfying.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

When Jackals Storm the Walls (Song of Shattered Sands) by Bradley Beaulieu (Daw July 2020) 

The reign of the kings of Sharakhai has been broken. The blood mage, Queen Meryam, now rules the city along with the descendants of the fabled twelve kings.

In the desert, Çeda has succeeded in breaking the asirim’s curse. Those twisted creatures are now free, but their freedom comes at great cost. Nalamae lies dead, slain in battle with her sister goddess. Çeda, knowing Nalamae would have been reborn on her death, sets out on a quest to find her.

The trail leads Çeda to Sharakhai where, unbeknownst to her, others are searching for Nalamae as well. Çeda’s quest to find her forces her into a terrible decision: work with the kings or risk Sharakhai’s destruction.

Whatever her decision, it won’t be easy. Sharakhai is once more threatened by the forces of the neighboring kingdoms. As the powers of the desert vie for control of the city, Çeda, her allies, and the fallen kings must navigate the shifting fates before the city they love falls to the schemes of the desert gods.

Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders: A Dominion Of The Fallen Story by Alliette de Bodard (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc July 2020)   

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a tale of dragons, and Fallen angels—and also kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.

But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.

It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….

Editor’s Choice Award June 2020, 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.

The Falcon Arrives, Chapter 1 by Adrian Cross

There’s some good story-stuff here, and some interesting pointers to where it’s all going. I have a sense of the world, what level of technology it’s reached: armor and spears, but factories and pharmaceuticals. Or are the drugs made with magic? I’m sure the story will answer that as it unfolds. It seems to be a raffish sort of swords-and-sorcery underworld, with deep poverty and a good amount of brutality. I want to read more in order to get a wider picture of the world and its people.

In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about language, but first, a disclaimer. There is no wrong way to write a draft. When a story is finding its way through the writer’s mind and screen, what matters most is not the specific words they use, but getting the story blocked out in whatever way works best for the writer’s process. The time to worry about finer points of language and line editing is much later. Build the framework first, get the walls and floor and ceiling in place, then concentrate on the decor and the colors.

When the revision gets to that point, I would suggest focusing closely on language and choice of words, especially figurative language. The language of the draft aims to be vivid and striking and memorable, with unusual metaphors and strong sensory and emotional images. When it succeeds, it gives us a clear and immediate sense of what it’s like to live in this world. We can feel and hear and smell and taste the action as it happens.

Right now, it’s a bit over the top. Images pile up and tumble over one another. The opening sentence pays homage to the great trope, “It was a dark and stormy night,” with striking imagery, but it loses control of itself toward the end:

The storm whipped the city with barbed nets of rain and wind, and occasionally lashes of lightning that shred the sky like the spine of a captured street rat.

Whips and nets don’t quite mesh, though there’s a raw power in the barbs. The rat’s spine seems to come out of nowhere after the image of lashing and shredding. How does a spine connect with whips and nets?

I think here, less is more. Pick a concept—whips, for example—and keep the imagery focused on that. Think about what would wrap up the image in the most effective way. It might be as simple as ending the sentence with lashed the sky, and saving the rat’s spine for another scene.

Another tendency in the draft is that words don’t quite mean what they want to mean. The rain moaned, for example: usually it’s the wind that does that. Think about what rain sounds like, what sounds it can make. Can it moan? What mechanism would make it possible? Think too about how a reader will react, whether the image will throw them out of the story while they try to figure out what it means or how it works.

Clarity of meaning is important to keep the reader in the story. In the same paragraph in which the rain moans, there’s this:

The smell of the vats was heavy, unpleasant, but comfortingly familiar. It kept people away without reason.

I’m not sure what “without reason” means. The vats smell bad, though Jay finds the stink comforting. How does that translate into keeping people away for no reason? People who don’t have the comfort of familiarity would have reason to avoid the area, because it’s unpleasant. The apparent contradiction made me stop reading, and I lost track of the story while I tried to figure it out. In revision, rethinking or rephrasing would make the meaning clearer and keep the story flowing onward without interruption.

Watch in general for contradictions and confusions. Even as Jay focuses on finding medicine for Kalp, right after he remembers the sight of the sick person and his desperate sister, he says, I had no family, no friends. What are Kalp and his sister, then? Why is he trying so hard and at such personal cost to save Kalp?

Be careful too about how characters react and interact. Think about the balance between action and reaction, provocation and response. For example when the guard materializes out of the storm, we feel the power and terror of his presence. But after he’s interrogated Jay, he shrugs and leaves. We’ve been set up for a conflict that dissipates before it really gets started.

Another line or two, a sharper conflict, maybe a scowl or a warning from the guard, might give the encounter a bit more weight while still letting Jay off. Maybe tone down or delete the garbage-hat, too. It’s a strong provocation, but the guard’s reaction is disproportionately mild. It promises but it doesn’t quite deliver.

At this stage of the draft, I would recommend focusing on the story and the characters, and making sure the overall structure is solid. Once that’s where it needs to be, then go word by word and line by line. That will bring it all together, and the story will be stronger

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 2020, 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 Black-Leopard Numen by Rita de Heer

This chapter has lovely bones. The setting, the characters, and the worldbuilding have great potential, and the voice and narrative style, while still figuring themselves out, are starting to show what they can be. It’s a good draft, with more to come.

I love the title. I want to know what it means. I see hints of it in the chapter, a reference here and a phrase there–the leopard eye, the cat imagery. And that, for an opening chapter, is a good thing. It encourages me to keep reading, makes me see certain words and concepts a little more clearly, and leads me onward through the story.

I think as the hominids’ nature and culture come more into focus, the verb tenses will sort out as well. It’s not clear yet whether the shifts are the author experimenting with different tenses to see which one works best, or whether the changes of tense serve a purpose in the narrative. If it’s about whether to tell the story in present or past, it comes down to what feels right—what works best for the story as it wants to be told.

If the shifts of tense are more complex, if they reflect the characters’ states of mind, or where they are on their personal timeline, or what they’re trying to do at a particular moment, that will take a little more time to develop. What’s most important is that the shifts be consistent, and that they be clear, especially early on. Once we have the pattern, once we know what each shift means, we can follow the story as it flows from past to present and, maybe, future. I’ve never actually seen a story written in future tense, but I’d be open to the concept.

Even in draft I get a sense of how these hominids have their own culture, their own ways of seeing the world. Moggy’s viewpoint is intriguing because he’s a child. His thought processes are still developing, and he’s learning how the world works. He doesn’t have a name yet, which is a nice insight into how his people approach language and identity.

I do have questions about the two sides? personalities? worlds? of Moggy. There’s the I, and there’s the kid. Are they separate personalities? Past and present selves? States of existence—Moggy in the world of the living, the kid on the border between life and death? A good part of that will probably come clear later in the story, but a little more clarity might be useful here.

One thing that might help with this is the mirror-description sequence. The character looking at himself in the mirror and describing himself is a venerable and somewhat disreputable trope. Usually in writing classes we’re told, Don’t Do That.

But, if there’s anything I’ve learned about rules of writing and elderly tropes, it’s that if you can put a new spin on it, and if you can carry it off, you can get away with just about anything. Since Moggy is not “us-human” as the author’s note says, and since his world and his culture differ in various ways from ours, maybe the mirror can be part of that. Might it be a way of grounding himself in this world? Of establishing that he is in this timeline, in this body? Could he use the mirror to suppress the kid and anchor himself among the living? Or might there be other and even more intriguing cultural aspects to the act of looking at himself in the mirror?

For that matter, if we think of a mirror as a portal to another world, maybe looking into one is dangerous. It might bring the kid even more to the fore, and Moggy might risk being lost between worlds. There’s a whole range of things that could happen when Moggy meets the mirror.

I’ll be interested to see how this story and characters evolve. There’s so much going on already, and so much still to discover.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 2020, 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.

Freets, Chapter One by Tracey V. Brown

I’m going to do something here that I haven’t done for a while, and that’s to discuss a more general topic rather than offering a specific critique of the submission. It’s a good start and I like the voice and the overall level of skill quite a lot. The writing is solid, and keeps me turning the pages. I’m interested in discovering what happens.

What I’d like to talk about is the conundrum in the author’s note. There seems to be a sharp division between readers who are satisfied with a more allusive narrative style, and readers who want things spelled out up front.

This cuts rather close to the bone of my writer-self, and I’ve had some spirited discussions with editors and copy editors. I like to be allusive. Some editors, speaking on behalf of a certain demographic of readers, really would prefer that I not do that.

To a degree it’s a matter of personal taste, but it also speaks to the question of how and when to convey information so that it’s clear to the reader. Some writers put it all in, tell it step by step, explain as they go. Others hint and suggest, as this chapter does with the coffin—touching wood for luck and for protection. To me it’s clear from context what the gesture means, but as I said, I’m good with suggestions rather than plain statements.

What to do here? I believe it’s up to the author to make the final decision. It’s impossible to please every reader. There will always be one (or more) to whom a particular submission does not speak. We’re all different, we all have varying tastes and preferences, and sometimes the work just isn’t for us.

In this case, I would ask what the writer wants to accomplish. Horror by its nature tends toward the allusive—so much of it is voice and tone and atmosphere, and its effects tend to build gradually. If there are questions at the start of a story or novel, if we’re not clued in immediately to who or what the people in the hidden village are, we can be sure we’ll get at least some of the answers by the end—and if some part of the mystery remains, we’ll embrace that, too, if the author does it right.

It’s all in how the story wants to be told. Does it want the answers up front, thriller style, so that the reader runs ahead of the characters, waiting for them to figure it all out? Or does it want the reader to live through the process of discovery with the characters? Either way is valid, but the ultimate decision is the author’s.

There’s a further complication in workshopping a portion of a larger work, when what we have in front us can’t and won’t contain all the information we need in order to get the overall picture. Many times, a question is answered in a later section, or a piece of information that’s not quite fully explained in one scene or chapter is clarified as the story goes on. Maybe it needs to happen that way; the story grows and expands, and the reader’s understanding grows with it.

Again, in the end, it’s the author’s call. We do want clarity, and clarification, but sometimes we want to keep a little mystery, too; a little something for the reader to discover as they read on.

–Judith Tarr

Writing Challenge/Prompt

We all have our favorite superheroes. Who do superheroes look up to? Is it someone braver, stronger, or is it the most unlikely person you could ever imagine?

Write a story around this permise.

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 Award June 2020, 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.

Titaness by Billy Forshaw

I was struck by the sense of distant quiet in “Titaness” this month: a lonely image of a woman wandering across far terrain, and a conclusion that’s grief-struck, ominous, but gentle. However, the author’s notes mention a sense of something missing—and for me as a reader, in a story about relationship, that was relationship between these characters and the details of their world. So this month, I’d like to talk about integrating science fictional worldbuilding into the stories we tell.

“Titaness” starts strong: an instant situation (a woman is outside), the implication that situation is ongoing, the implication of which kind of character would see this as a problem and tension within Maria’s home. However, it immediately moves into exposition about Titan and class: a briefing on what everything is supposed to mean that sinks the interest generated by that question in technical information.

It’s four paragraphs before anything more is mentioned about that character in a situation with a problem—Maria seeing a woman outside again and something about that is wrong—and by then, the tension and interest that problem creates has already been diffused and undermined.

This is the core issue I found personally with “Titaness”. Every time there’s mention of a speculative worldbuilding element—the Skins, the idea of charmed material, Equalizers—the story immediately diverts into a technical explanation purely in service of getting readers up to speed, and breaks the thread of what it’s explicitly told us to care about in the first lines: Maria, the isolation of Titan, the woman outside. And many of those speculative worldbuilding elements aren’t helping specifically to tell the story of Maria, her marriage, the woman outside.

It might be helpful to think about this as delivering structural mixed messages: “Titaness” has told readers a certain thing is important, that it’s the thread and core of the story—but keeps dropping it in service of a whole other thing. And then it becomes hard to tell what’s actually important here.

“Titaness”, by the end, feels as if it’s trying to encompass the background worldbuilding information of a classic hard SF story—noting every bell and whistle along the way—as well as the close human-centred, emotive perspective of Bradbury, and instead of building a structure that can hold both, or funnel both through the same channels, it’s switching between the two structures—and losing readers as it does, because those structures are working at cross-purposes. They don’t complement each other well. This is what the Gap symbolizes is a less effective tool than letting the Gap be a symbol and building the kind of structure that primes readers to look for symbolism when you’re speaking in the language of an emotive Bradburyan perspective; once they had been in love is less interesting than getting to see Maria reach for him, and Julien fall short.

I think it can be easier to consider how structure works in action-packed, fast-paced stories, but a structure of action, consequence, and attentional flow is part of every story we write; it’s just a question of how we keep attention flowing, and how that structure is dressed.

Since the author’s notes mention explicitly wanting to capture that Bradburyan feeling, I’d suggest it’s worthwhile to go back to Bradbury and study what he’s doing and how he maintains a character’s internality, voice, and tone when conveying worldbuilding information. Facts like how long it rains on Venus in “All Summer in a Day” are filtered through what they mean to the story’s protagonists—their impressions and relationships with those facts. There’s a lot of hard science fictional information passed on to the reader, but it’s not directly. That information does two things: inform about the world and introduce readers to the character.

So—all that being said!—I’d suggest tackling the structural issue in “Titaness” by putting the facts about Titan, the Gap, and more into relationship with their people, instead of letting them just interrupt those relationships.

What does any of this mean to Maria, even as a fairly reserved, opaque character who’s been, it seems, helping that woman all along and didn’t just hear anything? What does the fact that she’s telling Julien this as if it’s abstract mean about her relationship with him, and what she’s trying to elicit from him? There’s a possibility to go deeper into those dynamics by filtering through her perspective more strongly; what she leaves out and when.

I’d suggest taking this approach in small ways and large: How can “her husband, Julien” read more interestingly when Maria knows Julien’s her husband, and doesn’t have to highlight that fact because it’s apparent they’re in a relationship from how they interact? What more interesting information about Julien would she notice, and can take its place?

Ultimately, that’s the question I’d put forth: What would “Titaness” look, read, and feel like if the facts about Titan were being conveyed through the lens of what they meant to Maria—what she already knows, what she feels, and what she’s interested in?

I think with the structures more integrated—a hard science fiction story about relationships and told through them, not at war with them—any issues the author’s still feeling will come clearer, and get this closer to a final draft.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Brodi Ashton and Cythnia Hand

Welcome to 1876 America, a place bursting with gunslingers, outlaws, and garou—better known as werewolves.

And where there are garou, there’re hunters: the one and only Calamity Jane, to be precise, along with her fellow stars of Wild Bill’s Traveling Show, Annie Oakley and Frank “the Pistol Prince” Butler. After a garou hunt goes south and Jane finds a suspicious-like bite on her arm, she turns tail for Deadwood, where there’s talk of a garou cure. But rumors can be deceiving—meaning the gang better hightail it after her before they’re a day late and a Jane short.