Publication News

William Delman has a few announcements to make: “In addition to selling “Minerva” to last month, I also sold “Adiona Falters” (a former Editor’s Choice) to Little Blue Marble, and “The Commonwealth Turn” was purchased first by Kzine (electronic rights), and then by The Centropic Oracle (audio rights).”

Christine Lucas wants us to know: “OWW alum here. I have good news to share. My short story “The Drowned Man’s Kiss” that was an editor’s pick back in 2011 and received great feedback from guest editor C.C.Finlay (and many OWW member) sold to Pseudopod for their Artemis Rising 4 event. It took me a few years and several drafts, but I finally made it. And thank you all for your help.”

Editors Choice Review November 2017, 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.

There’s Someone In The House by Johann Thorsson

The opening chapter of There’s Someone in the House shows a major reversal, starting out with a husband, Michael Stillwater, eagerly arriving home from a business trip to see his wife, and ending with–I think–the husband, possessed by some entity–killing his wife. The smooth flow and building suspense keep me reading to the end of the chapter.

The chapter also has some nice writing that draws me in. The ends of the first two paragraphs–“It bored him” and “A bit of an enigma, called in for specialized jobs”–provide intriguing hints that Michael is not the standard protagonist. Once he gets home, some of the descriptions help to evoke fear. I particularly like “Her voice was a rush of leaves,” which I can actually hear, and the paragraph in which Michael hears a soft hello, “Deceptively quiet and menacing, heard like you ‘hear’ the words someone mouths from across a crowded room.” That is very evocative.

So the chapter has a lot going for it. I found after reading it, though, that I didn’t have any urge to continue. Pulling readers through and leaving them satisfied can work well for a short story. But a novel chapter, especially a first chapter, needs to leave readers eager to turn the page. I think there are several elements in the chapter that could be revised to help make that happen. Of course, it’s difficult to know exactly what to suggest without knowing where the novel is headed, but I’ll try to cover various possibilities.

One reason I don’t feel a strong need to continue reading is that I’m not attached to Michael, and I’m not terribly upset about his wife’s death. If I really cared about Michael or I really cared about Ellen and couldn’t walk away without a better understanding of her death, then I’d want to keep reading. But I barely know either of them. The first two paragraphs tell me some interesting things about Michael’s work life, but they don’t show Michael. It’s exposition, what is often called “driving to the story,” or in other cases “walking to the story,” “flying to the story,” or “riding to the story.” This means that the story starts with the character on the way to a place, and that place is where the true story will begin. As he travels, the character thinks about his life, filling the reader in on various facts. This is generally not a strong way to open a story or chapter. These paragraphs do get me interested in Michael’s work, but they don’t allow me to get attached to Michael, because I don’t see him in action. And once he arrives home, all of that information seems irrelevant. He becomes what seems to me a much more standard protagonist. He doesn’t act in any way that seems connected to his life as a contract lawyer to the stars. If his profession is going to be important later in the novel–and I suspect it is because it’s included here–then the novel could open with a scene of Michael doing his job, creating suspense over this false celebrity meltdown or some other issue, and making us care about Michael (either in a positive or negative way) by seeing how he operates in this milieu. This could help set up some plot elements that will become important in later chapters and create suspense that will make us want to keep reading after Chapter 1. It can also make us care more about Michael, so when he’s possessed, we’ll be upset. Ellen could even call several times during the meeting, but Michael can’t take the calls, so there can be conflict between the two parts of Michael’s life. Or maybe it appears that Ellen is calling, but when he checks the voicemail, he hears only a weird whisper he can’t understand, and when he calls her back, she says she never called. (And once he gets home, he can be getting calls regarding his job while he’s searching for the intruder. Job’s like Michael’s generally don’t limit themselves to work hours and can easily be all-consuming.)

For me, starting a horror novel with a character being killed feels quite familiar and gives me the sense that the author doesn’t have faith in his ability to get my attention without killing someone. But the writing in this chapter indicates to me that the author could definitely pull me into a novel with a scene in which no one dies. So why not establish Michael and get readers attached to him, and show his relationship with Ellen, so we can care about her too.

Another reason I don’t finish the chapter eager to turn the page is that the plot feels self-contained. It provides the reversal I mentioned above, and then ends with Michael discovering what has happened. I’m thinking that Michael is going to be arrested for his wife’s murder and go to jail for life. That doesn’t leave me a lot of reason to keep reading. I’m not terribly curious about who possessed Michael–I’m imagining it’s some dead, disgruntled celebrity client. But I don’t really care. I’ve read lots of possession stories, so for me, that’s the least interesting aspect of the chapter. I was more interested when there was a mysterious shadowy presence in the house that whispered to them. But if the chapter ended in an unexpected way that shed new light on either the characters or the possession plot, I could be excited to continue. If I had some intriguing suspicion, such that his wife made this happen so she could get revenge on Michael for cheating on her, I would want to keep reading to see if my theory was accurate. Or if Michael had an unusual reaction to events, such as he buried his wife in the backyard, or jumped in the car and headed out of the country, or called an enemy over to the house to frame him for the murder, or the experience gave him an idea how to solve the celebrity problem he was working on earlier, I would be eager to turn the page to follow his character and see how that played out. Or if there was some clue or strange element discovered at the end, such as his wife’s body parts were arranged to spell out a message, or some old (and lost) item of Michael’s was left beside the body, then I would want to keep reading to learn what that meant.

Thinking about plot on a larger scale, if Michael is the protagonist of the novel, the end of the chapter feels like the end of Act 1. I feel that he’ll change his goal in the next chapter (which will start a new act) to figuring out who possessed him and getting revenge on that person. But Act 1 (in a three-act novel) usually involves the first 25% or so of a novel, so things are feeling a bit out of balance. The novel feels like it’s rushing through important Act 1 elements. Having Act 1 build suspense through about a quarter of the way through the novel allows the crisis that ends Act 1 to have more power. The other possibility I see is that Michael is not the protagonist and this chapter is playing the role of a prologue–establishing an evil that will go after the protagonist. I don’t think that’s where this is going, but if it is, that’s an overused structure in horror that I wouldn’t recommend. I think it would still be better to develop Michael over several scenes/chapters so we care more when he’s faced with a possible intruder, possession, and murder.

I enjoyed many elements in this chapter. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Writing Challenge/Prompt

What’s it like to be an explorer, the first to see lands, sights–and even universes–that no one has seen before. And what does it feel like to be out there all alone?

Now write a story about a character in that position.

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)

On The Shelves

Red Dust and Dancing Horses and Other Stories by Beth Cato (Fairwood Press, November 2017)

This debut collection from Nebula-nominated author Beth Cato brings together works that span history and space, a showcase of vividly imagined speculative stories that range from introspective and intense to outright whimsical. Here you’ll find the souls of horses bonded into war machines of earth and air, toilet gnomes on the rampage, magical pies, a mad scientist mother, a bitter old man who rages against giant extraterrestrial robots, and a sentient house that longs to be a home. The book features 28 stories and 6 poems, and includes Cato’s acclaimed story “The Souls of Horses.”






Publication News

C.L. Clark wants to brag a little: “I just wanted to brag a little about my short story, “Sisyphus,” that I sold and that was recently published in FIYAH Literary Magazine. I got some good feedback and a confidence boost from the OWW to send it back into the world and it turned out well.”

Gregor Hartmann has good news: “My story “Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven,” which was critiqued at OWW in the spring of 2016, has been bought by Charles Finley at F&SF. The structure was a technical challenge to myself. I had been writing a lot of one-scene stories, very compressed in time, space, number of characters. So I resolved to write about a single character, showing brief scenes of her long complicated life. A sequence of snapshots, if you will, that resulted in a satisfying character arc. I’m pleased that it worked.”

Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[ September 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Robert Tarrant
Submission: Crom Dubh by Tyrone Babione
Submitted by: Tyrone Babione

Reviewer: Boz Flamagin
Submission: “variable time” – part I (post-review re-write) by Cyd Haselton
Submitted by: Cyd Haselton

Reviewer: James G Milton
Submission: The Plant by Robert Tarrant
Submitted by: Robert Tarrant

Reviewer: Penelope Lee
Submission: Crom Dubh by Tyrone Babione
Submitted by: Tyrone Babione


Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, 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 Totem by Kevin Zarem

This novel tackles a classic theme: the average guy who finds himself in seriously not-average situations. He doesn’t transform into a cockroach or (in the first chapter at least) zap off into a distant space empire, but his shifts in reality are if anything more disconcerting because they’re so small.

Stephan is very average. He’s of average age, in an average American town (Norman Rockwell version), living an average life. The precipitating event of the novel is one many readers can easily relate to: the death of a beloved pet (a dog of a popular breed, the Golden Retriever). The shift—via knock on the head (a classic that goes all the way back to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)—becomes immediately evident when the dog’s fate changes from death to allergies.

Stephan’s world is lovingly constructed and meticulously described. His interactions are hyper-realistic, recording the throat-clearing and the filler dialogue as well as the bits of speech that move the story forward. When the shift comes, it’s quiet; understated. There’s no big blowup and no huge shift in the universe. Things have changed, but Stephan has to take inventory in order to reckon the extent of the change.

A concept this apparently simple is in fact very difficult. The closer a writer comes to the lived experience of his readers, the more exacting they are about the accuracy of the details. The narrative has to be spot on on multiple fronts: plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, tone and emotion, as well as the setting and construction of the world.

It’s particularly important to regulate the emotional temperature of the chapter. By that I mean the choice of elements that go into the narrative, and the way in which they’re developed, as well as the level of feeling and the sense of payoff. How high are the stakes, and are they too much, too little, or just right?

In a novel like this, the key is deliberately low, and the effects are intentionally subtle. That asks a lot of the writer, because the prose has to be on point. The death of the dog needs just the right amount of pathos, just the right level of grief and loss—and no more, if no less. The characters’ reactions should be just right, and the world they live in has to walk a fine line between deliberate artifice and unintentional caricature.

I would suggest trimming the descriptions and reducing the number of times information is repeated, for clarity and to help the story move forward more smoothly. I would also recommend minimizing the amount of filler in the dialogue—greetings, small talk, people telling each other what they’re doing or about to do. I think you want the sense of a very well blocked out story with highly realistic elements, but I would prune it just a hair.

At the same time I would recommend toning down the emotions. Not so far that they disappear, but aim for a more subtle and nuanced sense of what Stephan and the people around him are feeling. Ask yourself if you’re laying things on a bit thick—particularly in the sequences about the dog. Are they going on too long? Do facts and images repeat themselves? Are the characters overstating the extent of the tragedy? Would it be more effective if it were less strongly stated?

The answer could be no, the story wants to be just a little over the top. But how far over should it go? The rule I like to follow is the one we used to apply in college: doing the bare minimum of work required to get the grades we wanted.

Take for example the reference to Norman Rockwell. It’s clear, but is it too clear? Does it lean too hard on the white-American-Fifties-mythic-normal of the town? Or is that exactly what you want to convey, with its ambiguities as well as its apparent simplicity?

These are the questions to ask throughout, in each scene, and with each character and action or reaction. You’ve set yourself the challenge of telling a fantastical story within the context of the purely American-normal and the consensually real. That makes it even more important to keep track of how you’re creating your effects.

Getting the emotional temperature exactly right takes practice, especially in a narrative with a high degree of difficulty. But it’s worth it, both for the lessons it teaches in craft, and the quality of the result. Or to put it more plainly, better writing, better storytelling, happier readers. Good things all around.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, 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.

Spoons by Robert Tarrant

“Spoons” has a fresh, delightful premise. A ladle gathers spoons from around the world for their ascension, and they attack a few humans who know too much. The story has some great absurdist humor, as when the spoons start spelling out messages to the humans. Their messages made me laugh out loud. The story also provides some vivid and entertaining descriptions of the spoons in action. I enjoyed reading the story quite a bit, but I do think it could be made stronger.

For me, the story seems to be caught between two possibilities rather than fully realizing either one. Stories with prominent, original ideas (like spoons attacking) generally work best in one of two ways. One possibility is to simply focus the story on showing the idea and ending the story. That way, you highlight the story’s main strength. To move “Spoons” in this direction, the plot needs to be simplified. Instead of moving between two settings, it could take place in just one. Instead of having three characters, the story could have just two, or even one. Instead of six scenes, it could have one to three. For example, in a three-scene version, the first scene could show Avery, the main character, at home, trying to eat ice cream and being attacked by the spoon. He might trap the spoon. The second scene could show Avery discovering a bunch of spoons coming out of his drawers to free the imprisoned spoon, and they have a bigger battle. Avery could defeat them and think his problems are over. Then the huge flood of spoons arrive with the ladle. They tell him he knows too much and must be destroyed, and then they kill him, or he flees and gives up his house to them. This structure would focus on showing us the unusual, fun idea. Such stories are often pretty short. A flash piece or something up to 1800 words or so could work well.

The other possibility is to make the story about more than the idea. There are a number of ways to do this, but one common way involves developing the characters more and making readers really care about them. The current characters work to show the idea, but they don’t really make me believe in them or care. That would be fine if the story were shorter and more idea focused, but as it is, I find the story appealing to emotions I don’t have, as when we learn that Martha has been tormented by the spoons (and we should feel compassion for her) and when Harold is killed (and we should feel upset about that). Those moments fall flat for me, and I find myself wishing the story was more like possibility 1, showing me the cool spoon idea and then ending. But if I had gotten to know Harold better, if I had understood why he and his wife suffer this tragic lack of communication, then I could care about them. While I know some facts about Avery, I don’t feel I know him. He seems to become a rather standard protagonist once the action begins. This type of story would require two plot threads: one with Avery struggling toward some goal and one with Avery fighting the spoons. The first plot thread would allow us to get to know Avery more and to get to know any other characters. We would also need more connective elements to further develop the story, such as theme, symbolism, and resonance (all elements of subtext). To develop these, it may be helpful to ask some questions. For example, what makes Avery the best protagonist for this story? What does fighting spoons mean to him? How is his reaction to the spoons going to be more interesting than any other possible character’s reaction? Perhaps we would cut Avery from the story and make Harold the protagonist, so we can narrow our cast to two characters, Harold and his wife. He’s a bitter skeptic whose wife is falling into dementia. The woman he truly loved married someone else, so he married his second choice, Martha. She can’t help him at the hotel anymore and spends all day buying expensive items on the Internet that she doesn’t even remember buying. These meaningless purchases are sending them into bankruptcy. Harold has to search the house every night when he comes home for new items that have been delivered and return them. In this context, Harold’s discovery of a new set of spoons and a big expensive ladle carries more emotional weight. These items–and especially the spoons, the most expensive purchase Martha has made–embody his unhappy relationship. The spoons work both on the surface level of story as an expensive purchase for him to return. And they work on the level of subtext as a symbol of everything that is weighing him down and destroying his life. Then when the spoons come to life and attack him, the event is more emotional and more tied to his character. He must return them (the way he might wish to return his wife), but they won’t let him. The spoons might kill Harold and triumph, which would make the story a tragedy, with Harold overcome by this meaningless chaos of his wife’s purchases. Or perhaps Harold is about to be killed when Martha helps him, destroying the ladle, so they both survive–and Harold is stuck back where he began. Or Martha could help the spoons, and Harold could take the ladle and kill her, ending up a servant of the spoons.

Anyway, that’s just an example of how this second possibility might work. There are many ways to develop the story in that direction.

Either possibility could generate a compelling story. Moving it closer to the first possibility would allow your idea to shine out all the stronger; moving it closer to the second possibility could deepen readers’ engagement and emotions.

But the story has many strengths as it is; I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, 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.

Beneath The Canyons Chapter 1 by Kyra Halland

It takes a lot of guts to put up an already published series for critique. I salute this author, and applaud the decision. Respect; admiration.

“Six guns and sorcery,” as a subset of Weird West, is one of my favorite genres. I chose this chapter because the author’s note asked good, concise questions, and because what happens in Chapter 1 plays a major role in the reader’s reaction to the rest. If the opening does its job, she’ll keep reading. If not, she’ll move on to the next book in the pile.

That doesn’t mean the story has to start with a literal bang, or that the action has to be breakneck in order to keep the reader reading. The first chapter’s job is to lure the reader in and give her enough information to avoid confusion, but not so much that she can’t process it all. It’s always a balancing act—but because this is the reader’s first encounter with the story and the characters, it has to work a little bit harder to get the job done.

This opening is distinctly exposition-forward. There’s a lot of worldbuilding visible, a lot of backstory, a lot of description and scene-setting. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear the author has done her homework.

The down side is that each time the narrative stops for exposition, the story stops as well. There are large quantities of information to process before we’re invested in the plot or the characters. We get a bit of action, stop, have things explained to us, move on a little bit, stop again, get another explanation, and so on.

The pace picks up midway through, as Silas enters the town and observes the interactions of its inhabitants. Eventually he interacts with them himself, and then the story starts to pick up speed.

By that point however, the reader’s impression of Silas is that he’s rather remote and disengaged from the world around him. We know what he sees, and we know what he knows, in considerable detail, but he takes a while to participate in the events he’s recording. He’s an observer but not, initially, a protagonist, i.e., the character who moves the story forward.

What I would suggest, to tighten up the opening and position Silas more in the foreground of the action, would be to apply Turtledove’s Law. For every five hundred details, pick the two or three that best encapsulate the scene. Leave the rest to implication. Pare down the exposition, keep the narrative moving, show just enough background and setting to ground the reader in time and space.

This will ground Silas as well. With less exposition and backstory, his role becomes clearer: we have time to see what he’s doing there, how he’s using his magic and why, and what he has to do to keep from getting in trouble for it. This gives us a sense of his personality, who he is and what drives him. We still catch hints of where he comes from and get a good glimpse of his surroundings, but not so much that we lose track of the story that’s being told right here and now.

It can be really hard to let go of our lovely worldbuilding, but it’s all still there, and the astute reader will pick them up from context. Some of them may emerge later, as they’re relevant. If they don’t, it’s likely the story doesn’t need them. It’s got everything it needs to keep the reader informed, and to keep her turning pages.

–Judith Tarr