Grapevine/Market News

Arsenika is open to both flash fiction up to 1,000 words, and poetry submissions until November 1, 2019. Payment is $60 for flash, and $30 for poetry. Full details can be found here.

Dark Moon Digest is a quarterly publication, and they are currently looking for stories between 1,500 and 7,000 words. Submission period is ongoing. Payment for original fiction is at the semi-pro rate of 3 cents per word. They also publish reprints at the rate of 1 cent per word. Full details can be found here.

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Everyone has a favorite story or favorite book. Think about what you love most about that story, what elements got under your skin.

Now think of what you’d change if that story belonged to you. Would you change the ending, the main character? The setting?

Then write your own story, with your own character, and compare the two stories.

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 October 2019, 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.

If All You’ve Known Is Winter by Russell Shannon

I was struck this month by the simplicity of “If All You’ve Known is Winter”: a quiet, clean, troubling story floating on a base of complex and interesting worldbuilding, one with nuanced things to say about the way sex and community and how the hunger for intimacy can shade into and sabotage itself. However, while the way this story uses archetype, distance, and focus could be a tidy comment on the protagonist and his arc, those elements could still achieve more with a little work to make them more controlled. So this month, I’d like to talk about taking a stylistic element from a feature that could still possibly be a bug—and turning it into a tool.

“If All You’ve Known is Winter” has a number of craft aspects running beautifully already. There’s a great use of tactile detail, for starters: it has a real handle on the small physical gestures that show intimacy—and help me feel the nameless protagonist’s yearning for and lack of it.

The thematics are efficiently underlined by the worldbuilding: Rhea’s grey, icy landscape, notably devoid of places to congregate, made up of hard mattresses and dry breakfast biscuits and sterile corporate meetings and rock. It’s a tidy move to set that scene and then introduce Tyrus with a slice of wet, juicy cantaloupe. There’s not much idea work going into Heatscape, but there doesn’t need to be: it’s designed to do the kind of work the story needs to talk about what it’s interested in.

Our narrator is a messy protagonist; the way he can’t actually express what he wants, the way he can’t seem to understand the difference between reciprocal community—what the queer bar on Rhea has—and mutual use, the way he treats Tyrus once the waiter’s risked his own freedom on his account. His suffocating loneliness comes across absolutely clearly, and that yearning to see and be seen—to find other people like him, even if it’s in secret—made him much more compelling for me as a reader. It’s an incredibly core human urge, and the way he brutally screws it up, the way he can’t actually handle it once he’s got it, satisfies even in its disappointment. He’s had to damage someone in order to connect with them truly, damaged as he is. That rings true.

It’s overall a very clean piece, very sharp and muted in its tonal lines, and effective at doing what it’s set out to do.

I do have a few suggestions; more tinkering than major rewrites at this stage. “If All You’ve Known is Winter” does feel at times like it goes on a bit longer than its own plot. I think there’s a possibility of taking a few hundred words out of this piece, just to have it feel more streamlined—most likely in the paragraphs where the protagonist is pacing and crackling about his loneliness, or dithering in small ways.

I also wanted to raise the question of whether the facelessness and namelessness of everyone else in the piece is deliberate: a way of commenting on the protagonist’s issues with intimacy and distance. If not, it might be worthwhile to condense some of the action around his work duties and his boss with a few concrete details: a name, a specific kind of report, etc. It’s the sort of adjustment that would bring those paragraphs more cleanly into focus.

Likewise, some of the details could use stronger consideration: What kind of drink is he getting in the bar? Is there anything more unique and specific than pink curtains and fairy lights, since this character lives in stereotype but the Rhea queer community doesn’t?

This is where the question of whether a stylistic choice is something underthought as of yet or an active storytelling tool comes in for me, as a reader. The mutedness of this protagonist’s viewpoint could be saying something about his relationship to intimacy, to emotional distance. But as a reader I can’t be sure, because I’m not seeing the author demonstrate, in the places that aren’t focusing on the narrator’s personal perceptions and interactions—places like how the bar decorates—that they themselves have the range to execute a vibrant, specific style.

Ultimately, this is the same question as the dry biscuits and juicy cantaloupe: each makes the other mean something thematic in “If All You’ve Known is Winter”. It’s the same with using a deadened or muted descriptive style to tip readers off to a deadened or muted character: it’s much clearer that means something thematic if there’s a counterexample or three, something to signal readers that what we’re doing is deliberate.

So what I’d ultimately suggest for “If All You’ve Known is Winter” is a draft that looks for those opportunities to establish the narrator’s POV—his perspective—more strongly, and does so with a few small touches that underline that the rest of Rhea isn’t quite like him. It’s a small adjustment, but I think a meaningful one: something that’ll bring more life into an already cohesive story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

Homestead (Iris) by Kelli Kimble

This novel-universe checks a lot of my boxes. I love ancient Egypt. I outright stan Anubis. And I’ve always been fond of the Stargate franchise. The hint of Southern gothic adds a nice touch of spice.

Since this is an early draft of a first novel, the first thing I’m going to say is one of my standard pieces of advice, which is that there is no wrong way to write a first draft. The time to worry about doing things “right” is later on, in the revision stages. Right now, the story needs to come out in whatever way it’s coming out. Just worry about getting the words on the page.

Once the draft is written, a couple of things might be worth thinking about. One is the time in which the story is set. There are numerous ways to establish that in the narrative—word choice, turns of phrase, characters’ attitudes and world view, references to current events, and so on—and it’s a good idea to apply some of them, but one very simple solution is to label a chapter or a section by date. Then the bits of relevant detail have a clear context.

Another thing that might be worth pondering in revision is the way in which the chapter—and presumably the novel—relays information. In many ways this first chapter serves as a sort of author’s note to self. It sets up some of the backstory and establishes who and what both Mr. Anu and Miss Hond are. It does this primarily through Mr. Anu’s speeches, interspersed with bits of Miss Hond’s internal monologue.

There’s nothing wrong with this at all, in a first draft. The story unfolds in its own way, and the author gets the words down as expeditiously as possible. In revision, I’d suggest opening up the exposition both within quotation marks and outside of them, and finding ways to convey the information in a more immediate fashion.

Mr. Anu’s revelations are enough in themselves to fill up a novel. As a reader I’d like to see how Iris is different, rather than watch Mr. Anu tell her how she is. Maybe we can see her working on the farm, see how she uses her powers to help her perform a task, and give us a sense of how she feels about it. Excited? Guilty? Scared? That might make an interesting opening, especially if it includes some sense of the mystery that surrounds Mr. Anu.

The revelation that she’s not human, and that he’s an ancient god, could build up over a series of scenes or chapters. Keep us wondering, build tension and suspense, give us information in smaller doses. Let us guess, and see if our guesses are right.

Maybe Iris comes in unannounced and catches a glimpse of his true form. Maybe she picks up on some communication between him and his interstellar contacts, or however else the science fiction plays out in the novel. Or maybe she finds something on the farm that isn’t of Earth, that points to Mr. Anu’s origins. Then she would have to make choices about what do, whether and when to tell anyone, and how to use what she’s found.

One thing that might help is to study authors who you think build suspense well, whose works you can’t stop reading—you stay up all night devouring their novels, and can’t wait to find out what happens. Look carefully at your favorite scenes. See how they keep you turning the pages—how they reveal information, what they show onstage and what they keep from you as well. What do they put in, and what do they leave out? What sorts of narrative devices do they use? How do they use dialogue and exposition? How do they develop backstory?

Then maybe try some of these techniques in a scene or scenes of your own. Experiment. See what works for you. Most of all, think about bringing your story alive, letting your characters act and interact and think through as few filters as possible.

Best of luck with this novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

A Confluence Of Rivers by Lauren Simon

This chapter has a great deal of potential. It’s solid urban fantasy, with contemporary characters, magical contretemps, and a nice bonus in the relationship between mother and daughter. I love the sugar glider and the intimation that exotic pets are actually magical beings.

The author’s note asks about dialogue, and I paid particular attention to that as I read the chapter, because dialogue is one of those things that almost can’t be taught. You can’t tell students to listen to real-life conversations, because in real life, most of what we say to one another is what I call filler: ritual phrases that don’t really say anything. Hello, goodbye, how are you? Mostly, when we talk, we don’t really say anything. We’re establishing social connections, but we’re not moving our story forward.

In fiction, dialogue is the “good-parts version.” It feels convincing and realistic and immediate, but it keeps the stock phrases to a minimum. Whatever our characters say is directly relevant to the story. We leave out the extraneous bits, but if we do it right, readers will feel as if they’re getting the whole conversation.

It’s not just the words in quotation marks. It’s how the conversation is framed, what the characters do as they speak, how they interact physically and emotionally as well as verbally. That’s what I’d like to look at here.

The dialogue itself mostly does what dialogue in fiction is supposed to do. The narrative around it, in this draft, seems to be trying to figure itself out. There is a great deal of stage business. Each short line of dialogue is surrounded by characters doing things, sometimes several things in a row:

She twisted the gold bangles on her left wrist. “Your father made some bad decisions.” My mother inhaled sharply and let the air out through her teeth. She looked a picture on the wall of the three of us in front of a row of roses.

Exposition brings the narrative to a halt, filling in backstory or explaining the context:

Peanut was a sugar glider: tiny and big-eyed with a striped head and skin stretched between his limbs. I’d found him as a kid. Peanut could levitate and occasionally produced items from the folds of his wings like thimbles, buttons, and coins. I don’t know where they came from, but they weren’t from our house. He was a squidge: part-animal, part-magic, part-demon. On the power scale, squidges were smaller critters, demonics were medium-sized and dangerous, and demons topped them all. My business dealt exclusively with squidges or at least it had until today.

Sometimes both happen at once, as here:

My mother walked into the kitchen, turned on the electric kettle and opened the cupboard. She had a cupboard full of normal and magical remedies—from her time when she worked in a naturopathic shop. It was one of her many jobs she’d worked before Pregúntame, her advice column, had taken off.

Sometimes too there are odd gestures, phrasing that’s a little off true:

“It hurt you,” she guessed and bit her lips, holding them inside her mouth until she spoke again.

This almost reads as if she bit her own lips off and started to swallow them.

Each of these devices interrupts the flow of the dialogue. The characters’ conversation stops, starts, stops again. There’s so much to process that the reader loses track of what the characters are talking about.

In revision I would suggest reducing the stage business to a handful of actions that are directly relevant to what the characters are saying. Cut the eye action—gazing, staring, and so on—to one or two examples. Set up the actions around the tea in a line or two at most, then focus on the dialogue. Cut back the gestures likewise, pick one that’s emblematic of each character and let her do it once, twice at most.

The same applies to exposition. Choose one or two details that sum up the physical setting, and let those contain the rest. Pare away repetition and think carefully about the order in which details appear: make sure they follow logically. When it comes to backstory, think about what the reader absolutely has to know right here and now, and condense that into a sentence or two.

The key to effective dialogue is to keep the focus on the dialogue, and to make sure the framing devices enhance rather than overwhelm it. The tighter and more focused both speech and actions are, the stronger the scene is likely to be.

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wants everyone to know: “Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine purchased my flash story “The Galactic Internet.” It will appear in issue #76 dated September 2019, which should be out within a few weeks. This story was extensively reviewed by the OWW community, and I thanks everyone who helped me make it shine.”

The author of the Editor’s Choice Award winning story  “Ammi’s Broken Vase”, S.Z. Siddiqui,  wants us all to know: “Just wanted to thank the team at OWW again and let you know that this story won Apparition Lit’s monthly flash fiction contest. Thanks for this excellent resource for writers!”

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

The Box by Jason Kreth

I’m immediately drawn into “The Box” from the first sentence, which introduces the mysterious box.  That sentence sends me the message that this story will move forward crisply and excite my curiosity.  I get this same message at the beginning of the second scene, when the story reveals that the cows on the farm have begun to die.  That’s a very nice escalation of the situation.  For me, the greatest strengths of the story are this crisp pace, the curiosity it evokes, and the simplicity of the premise, which allows me to start forming theories and expectations from the start.

I think several other areas could be improved.  While the simplicity of the premise contributes to the story’s appeal, that also makes it more likely that I’ll compare this story to others with similar premises.  The object that grants wishes has appeared in many stories.  One of the most famous is the “The Monkey’s Paw.”  Stephen King played off of this story in his novel Pet Sematary.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a familiar motif; many great stories do.  The trick is in how you develop it.

“The Box” doesn’t immediately make me think of these works because the object at first seems to cause problems (the dead cows) rather than granting wishes.  So in that section I’m engaged in trying to figure out why and how the box is doing this and how it might be stopped.  If the box caused escalating problems and the attempts to stop it led to more problems, that could be interesting.

But the plot turns away from this.  Once the men explain how the box works and it begins granting wishes, the story falls into a more familiar track.  Still, the price demanded by the box, memories, provides an interesting twist, so I’m interested in seeing how the progressive loss of memories will affect George and how this will lead the plot in a fresh direction.

Unfortunately, the wishes lead right to Regina’s death, similar to the way the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw” lead to Herbert’s death.  So as I read the story, it is becoming more and more familiar and evoking less curiosity and suspense.  I know that when George gives up his memories of his alcoholism he will return to being an alcoholic.  And I know as soon as Regina dies that George will bring her back.  And I know that doing so will take all his memories.  The final act doesn’t provide me with any significant questions to wonder over or concerns to evoke suspense.

I think there are several ways to develop the plot to avoid this problem.  The story has an interesting triad of characters with George, Regina (his wife), and their friend, the first-person narrator.   Yet they each have their roles, and that really doesn’t change in the story.  George is the protagonist, his actions driving the story.  The narrator observes, and Regina is the victim.  If, for example, George could offer the memories of other people to get the box to grant his wishes, that could be very interesting.  The narrator could be losing memories without realizing it.  Or Regina could.  Another possibility would be to have a romantic relationship building between Regina and the narrator.  One (or both) of them might try to use the box to get rid of George.  They might try planting a camera in George’s office to see how he opens the box.  They might take slips of paper with George’s handwriting and combine them to offer the box a deal that they want.  Another option would be to tell the story from Regina’s point of view.  A story written from the POV of a character killed and then wished back into existence could provide an interesting perspective on the situation.

This connects to another area I think could be strengthened.  The narrator is quite a passive character and his emotions don’t come through strongly for most of the story.  I think the story would be stronger if the narrator was not just a chronicler and had stronger goals of his own.  This could give him a stronger attitude about everything George does.  George’s actions would either help the narrator in his own goals or hinder him, and that would put more at stake for the narrator and generate stronger emotions in him.  It would also create another layer of conflict and suspense in the story, which could make it more emotional, intense, and unpredictable.  When the narrator doesn’t seem to have any goals and doesn’t seem to really care much about what George does (until near the end), that makes me less involved too.  The narrator seems to know that George will revert to alcoholism before George gives up those memories, yet the narrator offers no warning to George and doesn’t try to stop him.  If the narrator is really George’s friend, I think he would care more.  If the narrator wants Regina for himself, then he might encourage George to give up his alcoholic memories, knowing the marriage would be ruined.  Either way, I’d be more involved.

I’ll cover the last two areas quickly.  First, some of the dialogue is weak.  When Regina brings coffee to George and the narrator, they both thank her.  You could show more about their relationships if they said something more personal.  There’s a fair amount of pretty standard dialogue throughout; characters nodding and saying “Yeah” or “Sure”; characters shrugging and saying “I don’t know.”  If the character is going to nod or shrug, he doesn’t need to also say “Yeah” or “I don’t know.”  Here’s an example involving the narrator:

“I shrugged.  ‘I don’t know, George, but that sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

This could be rewritten,

“I shrugged.  ‘It sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

Finally, the story has four acts, which means it feels kind of unwieldy and long.  One act or three acts usually work best.  A four-act structure rarely works well.  The first act, in which George is trying to figure out what the box is, lasts about one page.  The second act, in which George is trying to save his cows, lasts about a page and a half.  The third act, in which George is using the box to grant his wishes, lasts about four pages.  The fourth act, in which George is trying to bring Regina back, is about two pages.  The proportions aren’t working well, since we instinctively expect Act 2 to be the longest and Act 3 to be short and final.  If you cut the section in which the cows are dying, which really has no impact on the rest of the story, you could develop this into a stronger three-act structure.

I hope this is helpful.  I was carried right along through the story and really enjoyed the curiosity it evoked.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

You almost never dream, at least not dreams you remember. That all changes on your forty-fifth birthday. Suddenly, your nights are full of vivid dreams, dreams that exhaust you and dreams that frighten you. The worst part is you suspect all your dreams are coming true.

Put a character in that scenario and write a story about what they do.

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

Walter Williams wants us to know: “My short story, The InfoCoup is coming out in the fall edition of Abyss and Apex magazine, AND That same story has been chosen to be part of the anthology The Best of Abyss and Apex, Volume 3.  This will be available for purchase in December.

While the short story itself wasn’t workshopped on the OWW, it is an
excerpt from a novel that I partially workshopped on OWW.  The very first
draft of the one chapter actually was chosen as the editor’s choice in ages
past.  (I’m willing to guess 2005 or 2006)”

Congratulations, Walter!