Member News Of Note

All of us at OWW would like to extent our most heartfelt congratulations to N.K. Jemisin. Her novel, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2015 at MidAmericaConII in Kansas City.

OWW members and alumni keep accumulating new honors, and reaching new highs in the field of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Those of us behind the scenes couldn’t be happier for them.

August 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Last Road Ch 1 + 2 Revised (C4C) by Helen Rena

The Last Road has several qualities important for a novel aimed at young adults:  an engaging, first person voice that sounds as if it comes from a teen; a protagonist concerned with issues of identity, belonging, loyalty, and friendship; and a romantic element.  The opening of Ch. 1 pulls me right in and makes me want to keep reading to find out what’s happening.  Ch. 1 and 2 both end with action and anticipation, creating suspenseful situations that pull me into the next chapter.  So these chapters have a lot of strengths.

I think there are several areas where the chapters could be improved, though.  I was confused by the references to what happened on the porch.  At first I thought this was something that happened on the porch of the house where Mara is in Ch. 1.  Later I decided I must be missing a prologue, so I looked in the older submissions and found a very short prologue in a previous version that seems to take place on the porch of Mara’s house.  For me, the prologue from Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view is not very effective.  I feel distant from the action and feel little emotion about the abduction of Mara’s sister.  It’s always difficult to offer advice on a novel without reading all of it, but I think there are two possible ways to handle this that would be stronger.  One would be to write the prologue from Mara’s POV.   We could better understand what this meant to her and how it affected her.  Was she traumatized?  Did she blame herself for what happened?  Was she happy because her sister got all the attention?  Was she confused and unsure what really happened?  Knowing what this meant to her would help us understand how she feels about the fantastic experiences she has in Ch. 1.  I find it hard to relate to Mara as she sees all these strange things in Ch. 1 and seems to take it in stride.  I would expect a much stronger reaction.  Whether that reaction would be terror that this force that stole her sister is back, or excitement at having her belief in the fantastic confirmed, or something else, would depend on how she reacted to that initial experience in the prologue.  Going through that prologue experience with her would help me to understand her in Ch. 1.

The other possible way to handle this material would be to cut the prologue.  Mara could have repressed this memory because of the trauma, and it might only come out later, as some experience with the fantastic awakens that memory and she realizes what really happened to her sister.  In this case, Mara would react to the fantastic much like many of us would, with disbelief and fear, which would be easier for the reader to relate to.

This leads to the next point I want to discuss, which is Mara’s character.  For me, these first two chapters don’t show me anything about Mara that distinguishes her from all the other YA protagonists out there.  She doesn’t seem a compelling or memorable character to me yet.  She’s basically a victim and seems helpless through most of this excerpt.  John Gardner famously said, “No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others.”  I suspect the book will show Mara gaining some power, and perhaps you’re trying to establish a character arc where she starts with little power and ends with more.  But she can’t start with no power.  To show her “struggling for his or her own goals,” you first need to strengthen her goals.  Her initial goal seems like it should be to find Blake, but she seems to give up on that when she reaches the kitchen.  She thinks about leaving but doesn’t.  She resists Paige but not strongly, and she seems not to care about Blake.  So she has no clear goal she is struggling to achieve.  She decides Blake can save her.

For myself, I’m pretty worried about Blake.  It seems like he was pulled away on purpose, and Paige might be behind it.  I’m thinking they might have him locked in a room somewhere.  But Mara doesn’t seem to care.  Does Mara think Blake would just wander off and leave her?  If so, is she determined to hold onto him?  Or does this confirm that she should drop him and leave the party?  The fact that she has no clear goal leads to the rest of her character seeming unclear.  If she believes in him and their relationship, then I think she’d try to find him.  If that’s her goal, then she needs to struggle more strongly toward that goal.  That doesn’t mean she has to succeed; she can still fail.  But she has to try with all she has.  She spends too much time unable to speak or act.   Why not let her pull her arm free of Paige?  She would still go down in the basement in her search for Blake, and Paige could accompany her with a smile.  Even when Mara has a heavy alcohol bottle, she doesn’t hit Paige on the arm with it to free herself.  Why not?

Similarly, she is helpless when falling toward the car and gets saved by the unknown hand rather than herself.  This makes her seem the victim of other forces.  The only significant action she takes in these chapters is to pull Chelsea aside, and her motivation to do so seems to arise suddenly and without sufficient setup.  It’s unclear what her goal is after leaving the party except to get away, but that is easily accomplished, not requiring struggle.  Then she decides to eavesdrop on Paige and Chelsea for no clear reason.  When the protagonist has no clear goal, it usually feels as if the author is manipulating the character, making her do these things, and that’s how I feel through much of this.

Giving Mara clearer goals and allowing her to struggle to achieve them will make her character stronger and the plot stronger as well.  For example, if Mara’s goal is to find Blake, let her struggle to free herself from Paige and finally succeed, only to go in the basement and find Blake making out.  Then let her go and confront him.  Her goal could be to hurt him as much as he has hurt her, or her goal could be to try to understand what’s happened, or her goal might be to say something clever and recover a scrap of respect out of the situation.  Why is she with this guy who has a new girlfriend every week?  What did she think their relationship was?  What did he think it was?  Providing some sort of interaction between them will give us a better sense of her character as well as some good conflict.

When she sees Paige and Chelsea at the gas station, her goal could be to pull some trick on them to get revenge.  This would make her more active and tie better to what’s come before.  Then when the blue boy wants to hurt them, Mara can realize that she doesn’t want that.  She doesn’t want anyone to be physically hurt; she only wanted to pull a prank.  Then she can push Chelsea out of the way, not because Chelsea opened the door for her (which again makes Mara passive and makes her seem at the mercy of/a victim of others) but because she doesn’t want them to be injured.

This ties to my final point, which is about plot and the causal chain.  Right now, many things seem manipulated by the author, not arising out of a strong chain of cause and effect.  The kids separate Mara and Blake for no clear reason; Blake thinks he can make out in the basement without Mara finding out for no clear reason; Mara falls in front of the car for no clear reason; she is rescued for no clear reason; the snake and other fantastical creatures appear for no clear reason; Mara gains the power to see fairies for no clear reason; the blue boy wants to attack Chelsea for no clear reason.  While I suspect a couple of these points will later have their reasons revealed (I suspect the person in the brown cape may be Mara’s sister who saved her from the car), I think most of them don’t have reasons.  Even if they all have reasons, it’s not satisfying to the reader to leave all of them unknown.  One could be left unknown, as a mystery, such as who or what saved her from the car.  But we should have a sense about the others.  Did Blake arrange for his friends to free him from Mara?  Did Blake arrange for his friends to keep Mara out of the basement (and Mara overcame them)?  A small gesture from Blake, before the split occurs, might indicate that, as well as the behavior of those people who initially split them up.  He might even see the girl he ends up making out with as they enter and give her a signal.

These points really all tie together.  It’s about establishing who your characters are, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to try to achieve their goals. This helps link all the actions in a causal chain driven by character and action.

Strengthening these elements will make the chapters even more involving and suspenseful.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey

August 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“De-Arrangement” by Lee Melling

“De-Arrangement” works primarily as the portrait of a man unravelling mentally in the wake of his beloved mother’s excruciatingly long, slow death from cancer. Brandon uses his taxidermy business as a coping mechanism, immersing himself in the making of “metazoan splices,” composite chimeras cobbled together from many different animal sources: an alligator-bear, an eagle-duck, a flamingo-weasel. Eventually, these creatures seem to come alive, and Brandon is either physically consumed by them or dies in a car accident while escaping from them.

The best horror stories are those in which the main character inhabits a reality which begins in a place the reader recognizes, then deforms and/or skews, revealing an unfamiliar and increasingly threatening perspective. Unfortunately, we’re introduced to Brandon at what seems like the very moment of his psychological downward plunge; things begin feverishly, at a high emotional pitch, and don’t ever seem to decrease in intensity, potentially burning out our ability to care what happens to him next.

Because Brandon is such a deliberately-crafted unreliable narrator—grief-stricken, frequently drunk, possibly insane—it’s almost impossible to figure out whether or not the “splices” turning on him is something that definitely happens, or whether it’s all in his head. The issue is further complicated by Brandon’s constant side-trips into memory, which may need to be organized a bit more linearly, to give a sense of progression.

For example: we start off with a brief look at Brandon’s mother’s degeneration, with a side-order of Brandon thinking about how his drunk, abusive father abandoned them long ago. In the background, we’re introduced to Brandon’s uncle, from whom he learned his taxidermist’s trade, who is shown as already being sick at Brandon’s mother’s funeral, then disappears somewhere in the first three sections of the story. Brandon seems to have taken over the business—did his uncle die? Keeping him alive might actually be a good way to clock Brandon’s disintegration, giving us an outsider’s perspective on his increasing madness as he has to try and convince his uncle that he’s keeping up with his responsibilities. (He never seems to have any customers, either.)

Then there’s the character of Brandon’s older brother Adam, first introduced the story’s second section, perhaps as a role model for Brandon’s fascination with taking animals apart of putting them back together. Brandon is initially horrified by Adam’s sadism, while Adam calls Brandon a “soft boy” for not wanting to hurt living things for his own amusement or to expiate his hatred of their father

“Just think of it as Da’, as if it’s his legs you’re pulling off. Like I do.”

Again, making Adam a character Brandon could interact with directly—in the present—might be helpful, in terms of keeping the story’s action more immediate, rather than stranding the readers inside Brandon’s skull.

But Adam dies “offscreen” instead, his funeral becoming the last place Brandon can remember seeing his father. So while it’s possible to extrapolate that Brandon’s memories of Adam might explain why he chooses to channel his rage about his trauma-filled life into re-arranging dead animals rather than live ones, it’s never really stated, clearly or otherwise. I don’t think you’d lose anything by doing so, since it would establish one more link in the chain of emotional causality.

Similarly, there’s the element of the neighbours’ dog whose constant barking gives Brandon headaches which he seems to be able to soothe by making more and more splices, though this strategy becomes increasingly less effective. (Why “metazoan,” by the way? This term might need some unpacking.) I must admit that I thought this plot thread was going to result in Brandon eventually killing the dog and turning it into a penultimate splice, perhaps the one which ends up menacing and killing him. As it is, it doesn’t really seem to pay off, much like the element of suddenly identifying the alligator-bear’s mastication with that of Brandon’s mother.

There’s something very powerful in the idea of taxidermy “turning on” Brandon, hearkening back to this observation—

He thought how it still seemed strange he didn’t know earlier that taxidermy was his calling. Like his mother, it had been good to him, where nothing else had.

—but you need to start seeding the idea that the pain Brandon’s mother suffers might have destroyed her love for him by the end earlier on, if that’s what you want to get across. It could be quite exquisitely hurtful for him to remember how she became more and more resentful as her vulnerability grew, maybe starting to lash out at him in ways the reminded him of Adam, or even their father…even more so if it, too, was happening in the present.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see what might happen if you reframed the story, moving the timeline back so that Brandon’s mother’s death was the midpoint rather than the beginning. As it is, what we’re watching very much reads like a fait accompli, a chronicle of a mental break foretold. We need to watch Brandon change and we need to care about the damage he’s doing to himself, especially in the wake of all the damage already done to him.

Final verdict: there’s a lot of interest and impact in what you’ve got here but it has integral pacing issues, so that’s definitely where I’d concentrate during your next draft, long before fixing the smaller problems (grammar, sentence structure, occasionally swapped the word “dog” for the word “god”). Best of luck in your process.

–Gemma Files

Publication News

J.J. Roth wrote to say: “Wanted to mention that my science fiction flash piece, “Grief, Processed,” sold to NewMyths.com and is slated to appear in the September 1 issue.”

Jeremy Tolbert has even more great news: “I have a story coming out in October in LIghtspeed Magazine called “Cavern of the Screaming Eye.” It’s the cover story, and they commissioned original artwork for my story. It’s a genuine illustration that brings my characters to life. We just got back revisions on it, and it looks absolutely amazing. Every time I glance at it, I grin ear to ear.”

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives a simple definition of the word transformation: a complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.

There are other, more complicated definitions, but I want you to think about that definition for a minute. What does it mean to be transformed? How could someone be transformed?

Now go write a story about that.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

 

Publication News

Barbara Barnett wrote to tell us: “Wanted to let you folks know that my novel The Apothecary’s Curse (which was an editor’s choice in April 2013 ) will be released by Pyr October 11.”

Amanda Downum has a new story out in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine. You can read “Fossil Heart” here.

Jodi Meadows got some great news recently. We can all look forward to two more “Jane” novels by Jodi and her co-authors. Cynthia Hand and Brodi Ashton. Look for My Plain Jane in 2018 and My Calamity Jane in 2020.

Jeremy Tolbert has a new story in the August issue of Lightspeed. You can read “Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus” here after August 16th. 

Goodbye, Kagi, and thanks.

Kagi just announced it is ceasing operations as of now. Find out details at www.kagi.com, but it looks like this will be more complicated for suppliers (that’s us) than customers (that’s you).

The sad result is that OWW members who live outside the U.S. have fewer payment options now.  We will try to find other companies that offer quick, easy, reliable service.  Luckily PayPal (which most of you use) has gotten better for non-U.S. customers in the last few years, so the need is now less urgent.

On The Shelves

Breath of Earth by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager, August 2016)

breath of earth beth cato

In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation— the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong secretary Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer wardens who have no idea of the depth of her own talent—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.

When assassins kill the wardens, Ingrid and her mentor are protected by her incredible magic. But the pair is far from safe. Without its full force of guardian geomancers, the city is on the brink of a cataclysmic earthquake that will expose the earth’s power to masterminds determined to control the energy for their own dark ends. The danger escalates when Chinese refugees, preparing to fight the encroaching American and Japanese forces, fracture the uneasy alliance between the Pacific allies, transforming San Francisco into a veritable powder keg. And the slightest tremor will set it off. . . .

Save

Save

Save

Save

August 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

 

“Nightingale” by Elizabeth Prosper

 

“Nightingale” caught my eye this month with its inventive worldbuilding and Eastern European flavour, and the alienness it brings to its take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. However—and as the author’s already identified—I feel it’s running into some issues that are unique to how we retell fairytales, and how we make them fresh and new. This month, I’d like to talk about what knowledge we assume readers have when we write fairytale adaptations, and how we balance old and new to give a retelling maximum impact.

There’s a lot of craft already on display in “Nightingale”: a rich, organic-feeling world, a twist of the weird that doesn’t feel at all forced, and a great cadence to the language. It’s a powerful combination, but one that isn’t quite running smoothly yet: it’s easy for lush to slip into baroque sometimes, and there are a few sentences where each image doesn’t lead naturally to the next.  For example:

“The Nightingale has returned to the Supari streets she came from, where schools of iridescent fish dart between grim iron effigies of trees (a state-imposed gift of Rumen Tsor’s father) and tender-footed porcupines clamber from window to window, across hacked-up telephone lines used for hanging washing, with messages in lace pinned to their mottled gray spines.”

In that one sentence readers are exposed to multiple visual ideas, each of which can do solid work to set a sense of place, create a contrast between the world of the Supari and that of Rumen Tsor, and establish a sense of wondrous uncanniness. They’re each ideas that are worth including. However, pressed together into one sentence—and run through so quickly—they muddy pretty quickly in my head, and it’s easy to lose my way, both in the sentence and in the portrait of the world it’s building. A bit of breath between each visual, or pruning them down to focus on the few that are most important, might make each image have more individual—and thus more collective—impact.

I’d suggest taking the same approach to the symbolism in the piece. While the internal cultural symbols of the Supari make this world feel very rich—for example, the green and white smoke—the symbolism in “Nightingale” is deployed when it hasn’t quite been set up for readers concretely, and that robs it of the kind of impact it could have. Selecting and strengthening a few choice symbols would give them the potential to stick with readers, and have their meaning—when they’re deployed—make a stronger impression.

Given the density of the new material in “Nightingale”, it’s worth pulling our figurative lens out one layer and discussing the question of balance between new material and the traditional fairytale. There are two attractions, for readers, to a fairytale retelling: the new commentary, flavor, or perspective, and seeing what the author’s done with the original material—the thrill of recognition. Holding those in balance—and making sure they integrate into a single, logical, internally coherent story—is a subtle but important task.

I’m not sure “Nightingale” is, in its present state, quite striking that balance yet.  Just as on the sentence level, there is a lot going on in this piece idea-wise, and there isn’t always a clear sense of how each element fits.

My suggestion for the idea level of “Nightingale” is the same as for the sentence level: a sharper emphasis on clarity. There’s a vagueness as to the nature of the Nightingale—one that’s assuming, maybe, a little more familiarity with the fairy tale than many readers have, or just details that haven’t made it onto the page.  For example, when the Nightingale’s talked about a person who had a youth and childhood but also someone who was made, it’s a worked-in reference to the original fairytale—but on the plot level, it’s a confusing contradiction.  A read-through that focuses just on the plot level, a second that focuses just on the referential, and an revision to bring those two closer in line by making sure each reference works on both might smooth this issue out.

Working a fairytale into a genre story can be a bit of balancing act: The foundation of the original story has to be clear, but not so obvious as to make the new story feel stale. The speculative elements of the original story have to distinguish, just a little, from the speculative elements of the new, genre version. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but with a little polish and structural rethinking, “Nightingale” has the chance to be something lush and unique.

Best of luck with it!

–Leah Bobet

Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)