Publication News

Gregor Hartmann has some great news: “Just wanted to let you know that “Brought Near to Beast,” an editor’s choice last year, sold to Analog (with a revised ending and some character tweaking!). Thanks again to everyone who weighed in on it.”

Congratulations, Gregor!

 

Member News Of Note

OWW alumni continue to accumulate award nominations and be recognized for their outstanding work. This year’s Hugo finalists include:

Best Novelette: Emergency Skin by N. K. Jemisin

Best Short Story: “A Catalog Of Storms” by Fran Wilde

Best Editor Short Form: Charles Coleman Finlay

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel: Fran Wilde

Best of luck to all of you!

A Message From The Online Writing Workshop

Dear Online Writing Workshop members,

The COVID-19 fallout is certainly affecting each of you in some way.  We hope you are staying safe, healthy, hopeful for the future, and creatively engaged.
As a token of our appreciation for your continued membership, and to support writers of all kinds, we are taking two specific actions:
  • extending all existing memberships by one month – this should have already been applied to your account!
  • offering an additional month free trial (so two total) for all new memberships [until stay-at-home orders are lifted globally]
We hope you will stay with us, increase your connections and activity, and welcome your friends, networks, and those you encounter who may be interested.  We are also working on promotional materials and other ways of spreading the word about OWW and building the community.
Be well, and happy writing and reviewing,
OWW Team

 

Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, Short Stories

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 Meek Shall Inherit by Bill S.

I was drawn to “The Meek Shall Inherit” this month not because of its topical content, but its clean, clear voice work, its humility, and its ethic of rebuilding: viral intelligence as a literalization of resilience in the face of disaster. And because it’s a story about handling failure and what living is. However, it’s also one that’s not quite put together yet mechanically, and the author’s notes speak directly to that. So this month, I’d like to discuss diagnosing a story’s potential issues based on feedback—and how to decide which adjustments will address them.

There are a lot of strengths in “The Meek Shall Inherit”: its narrative voice is cleanly, quickly established, vivid and complete inside a few sentences. Cadence is still a visible strength here, and a quiet but sharp emotional intelligence that’s visible in Sibby, Sorely, Stub and the protagonist’s interactions.

Imagery is also a strong point, as it’s been in this workshopper’s other pieces. The gentle tactility of “the swimming pools filled in bit by bit as fingers of green reached out from all edges of them” and vividness of “skyscrapers like massive gray jagged teeth chewing up the sky” go a long way to making “The Meek Shall Inherit” compelling as it sets up its world and characters.

Foremost, though: It is kind. There is an unvarnished simplicity to this narrative voice that radiates love for the protagonist’s people and the places they travel through. I found “Sorely keeps me sane, and safe. James–Stub we call him–keeps me honest, and kind. The world keeps me on my toes, but mostly I keep us going” deeply emotionally affecting: both in how it sets the tone for what this post-apocalypse’s particular values are and how ably it shows the protagonist’s love for their family.

Plotting was mentioned in the author’s notes as a frequent point raised in rejection letters, so I’ve focused on peeling those strengths back to see what they’re compensating for—and what might be able to be reinforced or reworked to get this piece from positive rejection letters to acceptances. I think there are two potential ways to consider that feedback.

Firstly, I’d suggest some of what’s being discussed as plotting here overlaps with pacing. “The Meek Shall Inherit” is a very long piece when weighed against what happens in it when it’s stripped down to a summary. It’s potentially twice as long as it needs to be to handle the action it’s tackling; to set up the problem and find a solution to it. By “Every day is a treasure” I’m looking for a moment of change, choice, or challenge—even the hint of one coming over the horizon beyond a notice that things were going to go bad.

There’s a frequent temptation to establish a character’s “normal” so readers can feel the impact of its changing, but especially in aiming at genre markets, that pause can stall the narrative motion—the plotting. I’d suggest taking all the information on the family’s normal routine and finding whether there’s a place to work that into other scenes without giving readers informational overload in those moments—and just cutting any that’s not actively relevant.

I’d also look at the sentence level for chances to be more deliberate about the pace. Each one of the protagonist’s observations is lovely individually, but together they start to bunch and clog. I’d suggest considering: where are they most effectively deployed? How do the descriptions interact with other elements of the story—where are they slowing those down, and where supporting them? Where is a point becoming a speech and then a rant, and would it be made effectively as just a point?

Secondly, I’d look at the approach toward its conflict. Ayla and Went’s basic disagreement—knowledge and intellectual literacy versus guns, science versus religion, communal societies versus authoritarian—is not precisely a new or novel battle line. These are the obvious fault lines in our current society, and while that’s a tricky business, because it means they’re relevant fault lines, they’re also the ones that are hard to place into fiction explicitly without having readers think I’ve seen this a hundred times before.

I think “The Meek Shall Inherit” has a good thing to say about that question and what the act of protection is, but would suggest that this story could be effective if it even tackled one of those conflicts, without having to be about all of them. There’s an overwhelm in trying to handle the entirety of society as it is—for readers as well as writers—and just like when we’re writing a description, the right detail is often better than a generality.

This is, I think, not a question of genre versus literary but sheer structural execution. And when the question of what “The Meek Shall Inherit” wants to specifically tackle—which of those conflicts best sets up its emotional realization—and how many words of story are right for that plot is handled, I think there’s a place for it in the current genre environment.

Best of luck!

And to everyone reading the Editor’s Choices this month: I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy, and please stay safe.

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

On The Shelves

The Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books April 2020)

Red Sparkle Stone is a foundling orphan with an odd name, a veiled past, and a mark of magic in her hair. But finally―after years and years of running, of fighting―she is about to be adopted into the royal family by Empress Elisa herself. She’ll have a home, a family. Sixteen-year-old Red can hardly believe her luck. Then, in a stunning political masterstroke, the empress’s greatest rival blocks the adoption, and everything Red has worked for crumbles before her eyes.

But Red is not about to let herself or the empress become a target again. Determined to prove her worth and protect her chosen family, she joins the Royal Guard, the world’s most elite fighting force. It’s no coincidence that someone wanted her to fail as a princess, though. Someone whose shadowy agenda puts everything―and everyone―she loves at risk. As danger closes in, it will be up to Red to save the empire. If she can survive recruitment year―something no woman has ever done before.

New York Times–bestselling author Rae Carson returns to the world of The Girl of Fire and Thorns in this action-packed fantasy-adventure starring an iconic heroine who fights for her family and her friends, and for a place where she will belong.

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Chaos Is What You Make Of It by Tom Jackson

High fantasy, or epic fantasy as it’s also called, has its own rhythms and pacing, its own voice and style. Its scope is vast and its stakes as high as the world. Its plots can be quite leisurely in their unfolding, wandering off on byways of history and characterization, or taking time to set up every aspect of a development in the story. Readers expect this; they come to the genre to be immersed deeply and extensively in a fictional universe.

Even so, the rules of narrative economy continue to apply. As rich and detailed as the epic style can be, every word still has to count. It’s especially important to make sure that words and phrases mean exactly what the author wants them to mean. Figurative language and rhetorical devices should enhance the story and its characters, but not overwhelm them.

The first thing I’ll note is that the rewritten opening sequence doesn’t work for me. I have no problem with starting a novel in the middle of a dramatic episode, and filling in exposition and backstory in later scenes. The opening in this draft crams together two disparate elements: climbing a mountain and lecturing a pair of novices. Either one might serve on its own, but together they don’t quite mesh. There’s too much going on at once.

One solution would be to pick one of the two—the climb or the lecture—and make that the opening, but the story proper begins with the preparation for battle. The rule here, or guideline if you will, is to begin as close to the ending as you can while still getting the important parts of the story in. The stake-setting scene does that. The climbing scene seems less organic in its construction: it reads as an attempt to juice up the exposition by making it happen while the characters are Conscientiously Doing Stuff. The scaffolding is a little too clearly visible, whereas the stake-setting serves a clear purpose. It moves the story forward.

Structurally I think the original opening is more economical, more relevant, and also more vivid. The necessary backstory can be worked in later. What matters now is getting to the point of this introductory sequence: the monks and the race war, and the setup for the rest of the novel.

A crucial part of getting to the point is the prose itself, the way the story is written. I usually advise not worrying about that while the story is in draft. Get the big stuff working first—plotting, characters, setting, worldbuilding—and then focus on the word-by-word.

When that time comes, I suggest a concerted campaign of pruning and tightening of the prose, paying careful attention to the meanings of words and phrases. Sometimes I’m not sure what a line means: The art of manipulating body to will. What is this trying to say? And here: saliva feeling acrid in her mouth. Acrid is a taste rather than a sensation. What other, more precisely calibrated word would be appropriate here?

Watch for mixed metaphors, too, and figurative language that goes a bit (or more than a bit) overboard. This, for example: The shameful prayer rattled in her mind, a drum she could not silence. The image catches the reader up short, because while a drum can rattle, it’s more likely to be a thud or a roar or a hammer. When the reader stops like that, the story stops, and the reader’s engagement with it is interrupted. She loses the thread of the narrative.

Really effective figurative language keeps the reader inside the story, even if she may pause to admire the author’s cleverness with words. It’s better I think to dispense with the imagery rather than lose the reader’s attention. The experience should be as seamless as possible.

There are other ways as well to smooth out the prose, to make the story move more efficiently while keeping the sense of high style and cosmic stakes. I would suggest reducing or eliminating the italicized thought-balloons, the ongoing internal monologue. For the most part these interpolations explain what’s already explained by words or actions. Are any of them really necessary to move the story forward? Do they add anything significant to the character’s development?

The same applies on a larger scale to the frequent repetitions, the over-and-overing of descriptions and actions and reactions. Sometimes these repetitive phrases serve a rhetorical purpose, in a prayer or a rousing speech. But as with all rhetorical flourishes, a little goes a long way.

Frequent repetitions clog the pipes of the story. Once or twice may be vivid and memorable, but if the same devices appear over and over, they cancel each other out. My suggestion would be to eliminate all repetitions, even those in prayers and speeches–right down to the phrasing: breath catching in throat, heart pounding in chest; just let the breath catch, the heart pound. Then try restoring just one or two of the greater flourishes, the incantations or the speeches, where they’re most strong and effective. See if the story comes through more clearly, and the characters’ actions and motivations are clearer as well, now the stylistic undergrowth has been pruned away.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Sometime Through The Stars by Kate Ellis

I chose this submission for this month’s SF Editor’s Choice because I love alternate history, and because this particular setting is not one I’ve seen before. The Author’s Note promises broad and deep research, and the chapter delivers. There’s no way to fake the kind of attention to detail that we see here, the sense of time and place and culture that I like to call “period sense.”

What makes it even more impressive is that although there is plenty of exposition, and plenty of backstory incorporated into the narrative, it feels organic to me. The story develops at a steady and convincing pace; the expository bits enhance rather than obstruct the progression of events. It’s dense, chewy, and engrossing.

The one question I have relates to the character of Zoya. Her background and her personality come through strongly from the start; it’s clear she has traits that make her unusually well suited to the confinement and the sensory deprivation she’ll be asked to endure when (if) she goes into space. When she’s fobbed off on Lidiya however—a clear conflict for Lidiya between wanting to do her job regarding the payload, but being forced into a conventional female nurturing role—the interaction between them seems to me to need a bit more development, a little more layering of emotion and reaction. As written in the draft, Zoya’s words and actions don’t quite match the intensity of Lidiya’s reaction to them.

She comes across as blunt and opinionated, sliding over into actual rudeness, but I didn’t quite pick up on the abrasiveness that affects Lidiya so strongly. Lidiya is a bit raw and resentful to start with; that comes through. I’d have liked to see just a hair more from Zoya, a tone of voice, a glance, an expression, something to enhance the effect she’s having on Lidiya. It doesn’t need a lot; a line here, a phrase there, would do it. Just to bring out the conflict a little more clearly, and sharpen the emotional edge between the two women.

The transition from Lidiya’s story to Masha’s is a little jarring, but in a very good way. We’ve been immersed in one well-developed setting. Now here’s another, completely different, but clearly connected in some way that we’ll come to see as the story unfolds. It moves along rapidly, it shows another aspect of this strange-familiar world. It definitely makes me want to know what happens next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Helping You Be Your Best Self by Emily Scharff

The underlying idea, that a possessing entity can be a better Maya than Maya herself can be, is engaging and thought provoking.  The story does a good job at the start of showing Maya’s depressed nature, her dependence on Roger, and her motivation to “skip” parts of her life.  Her discovery that those important to her prefer the “possessed” Maya to the real one carries some good impact.  I think ending with Roger is the right way to end, since that relationship seems to be the most important one to Maya.  The message that the entity conveys at the end, “A happier you for a happier world,” conveys the situation Maya faces very clearly.

I’ll discuss the editorial feedback this revision is intended to address last.  First, I want to share my thoughts about the story.  If they aren’t useful for this story, perhaps they can help you with future pieces.

I think the story could be strengthened by increasing its unity, making all the elements work together.  Right now, the story seems to have several elements that don’t seem incorporated as well as they might be.  For example, Kevin seems very important in the opening scene, when we learn that he seemingly molested Maya, and she chooses to “skip” over her mother’s party because she doesn’t want to face him again.  Yet Kevin is barely mentioned in the story after that, as if he was just an excuse the author used to make Maya click on the app.  She later sees photos of the party, but there’s no mention of Kevin.

Because the problem of how she’ll deal with Kevin seems like the biggest problem in the opening, I’m most interested in finding out what happened with Kevin in the second scene, and I feel like something’s missing at the end when the situation with Kevin isn’t tied into the climax and conclusion.  I don’t think we actually need to meet Kevin in the story.  I think that dropping a hint or two into the story about what happened could be effective.  For example, when Maya is in school, I think you can raise the issue of Kevin more strongly.  I was fairly confused about her interaction with the teacher and why she got so upset.  What if the teacher hands back a test on which Maya did very poorly, and the teacher comments, “I thought you were getting tutoring three times a week.  Maybe your parents should ask for their money back.”  I think that could send Maya running from the room and could carry some pretty horrific implications, if she’s been seeing Kevin three times a week for a month.  The story might also describe a photo with Maya and Kevin in it, so we could get a hint of what the relationship is between Kevin and the possessed Maya.  Does she now dominate him?  As is, Maya mainly seems worried she’ll have to see him again, which is the same problem she had at the beginning.  That means this plotline is “stuck” in that situation and is not developing it.  Try to take it the next step.

It would also help to have two interactions with the mother rather than just one; that would help tie the mother into the story better.  If we could see her interacting with Maya in the first scene, we could get a sense of how the mother feels about Maya.  This could be brief, just the mother leaning into Maya’s bedroom during her texted conversation with Roger to say a line or two and then leave.  The mother might express her dissatisfaction that Maya isn’t wearing the lipstick the mother left for her, or something like that.

Another element that could be better incorporated into the story is what Maya thinks about her relationship with Roger.  At the end, she’s surprised at the feeling that Roger remained her friend out of pity and that she has been a burden to him.  So what does she think about their relationship at the beginning?   She thinks they’re friends, but I don’t get much more than that.  Does she think they both help each other, when in reality it’s always Roger helping her?  Does she think he really enjoys helping her?  The ending will have more impact if we know how different the reality is from her perception.  That’s not clear now.

The other area I think could be strengthened is Maya’s behavior.  For me, the believability of Maya’s character was undermined several times because I didn’t believe she would do what the story showed me.  The initial message she sees on her phone, “Want to skip through your day?” creates in my mind the image of a child skipping along.  It doesn’t make me think about skipping over unpleasant events.  So when Maya is immediately interested in the message, and immediately seems to read it as offering her the power to skip over events, I don’t believe that and don’t believe in her as a person.  It makes me feel as if the author knows what she means and is conveying that knowledge to the character, while the reader is left out.  If the message said something like, “Want to skip over parts of your day?” then I’d understand it as Maya does.  Or it could address the issue differently and tie better to the later messages; for example, “Are you unhappy?” or “Is your world an unhappy place?” or “Want to cope better with your life and be a happier you?”  A message like this could also add more unity to the entity’s messages through the story and to the decision that Maya must make in the story.

When she thinks, near the end of the first scene, that the advertised service would allow her to skip the party, that seems forced by the author, not something Maya would really think for two reasons.  First, because the ad doesn’t clearly claim that, as discussed above.  Second, because I don’t believe she would buy such a crazy claim, even if it was made clearly.  Maybe, if the claim is made clearly, she could think the service being offered is some sort of meditation or technique to cope with upsetting events.

I have a similar problem in the second scene, when she jumps from thinking she was in an accident to believing she was possessed.  To me, it seems like she’d have a step between these where she might question her sanity and might wonder whether she has Dissociative Identity Disorder.  She could check her texts in the second scene rather than the third scene, before the message from the entity.  I’m not sure why the entity deleted her texts with Roger.  It seems like she just told Roger that should stay apart.  And I think the entity would know that she’d talk to Roger and find out what the entity told him.  Anyway, it could be interesting for her to look for texts with Roger and not find any in the last month, but then see she’s been texting Kevin.  Or texting other people she doesn’t know.  Or texting a popular girl at school.  That would help me to accept that she believes she’s been possessed after the entity’s message.

Those are the main points I wanted to cover.  The revision request talked about making the ending more ambiguous.  While I can’t comment on the “more” part, because I haven’t read the previous version, I think the story’s end is ambiguous, and I feel generally satisfied by it.  The request also asked for more of an exploration of the entity’s motivation.  I think the messages from the entity could be strengthened some and made more unified, as discussed above, and I think that could more strongly suggest/imply the entity’s motivation.  I don’t need more than that.  Finally, the request asked for more time to resolve the friendship.  I discussed the Maya/Roger relationship above; I think you could strengthen the relationship arc by making some changes in those areas.

I enjoyed reading the story.  You succeed at accomplishing a lot in a short piece.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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