Writing Challenge/Prompt

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

Write a story around this permise.

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

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

Editor’s Choice Award June 2020, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Titaness by Billy Forshaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

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

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

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

Member News Of Note

The finalists for the 2020 Locus awards have been announced. OWW alumni continue to be recognized for excellence and as some of the best in the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Huge congratulations to all of you and good luck!

  • Best Science Fiction Novel
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
  • Best Novella
  • A Time To Reap by Elizabeth Bear
  • Best Novelette
  • Erase, Erase, Erase by Elizabeth Bear
  • Emergency Skin–N.K. Jemisin
  • Best Short Story
  • Lest We Forget by Elizabeth Bear
  • A Catalogue Of Storms by Fran Wilde
  • Best Collection
  • Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Alliette de Bodard
  • Best Editor
  • Charles Coleman Finlay

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Forged By Death by Jennifer Dawson

This chapter features some of my favorite elements: books and magic, and portals (or rifts). There’s a bit of a sendup of the usual pattern, with the parents who live a life of adventure and the daughter who doesn’t want adventures. She just wants to go to university and immerse herself in All the Books. I can relate to that.

I do get the sense that Nacie is going to be forced into having adventures, and (in light of the title) that there is tragedy ahead. Her relationship with her parents is so sweet that it begs for a reversal. Her life is just about perfect. That’s always a bad sign.

While it’s important to establish that Nacie has had an idyllic if hard-working childhood, it might actually make the effect stronger to tone down the sweetness. Maybe give the parents a bit more of an edge and a bit less chuckling and smiling and teasing. Sharpen the hint of conflict with her father, let us see how life has taught him to be wary. Maybe he overprotects his daughter a little, as the mother pushes her studies just a bit too hard.

Maybe the daughter is a touch more rebellious, a touch less content. She might accept that she has to wait to go to university, but she might also chafe at it, wish she could be older now, could have it now. And maybe there’s a bit of a chill down her spine, a sense that this can’t last, that one of these trips, they won’t come back. If they’re the only ones who can cross the rift, if no one else can do it, who can find them if they’re lost? How will anyone be able to follow them? Which leads to another question that’s probably answered later on in the story: If it’s only the two of them, did Nacie inherit the ability? Does she know how it works, even if she hasn’t done it herself?

Nacie in fact feels younger than sixteen. Her study of arithmetic makes me think elementary or middle school. By sixteen, which is a year or two from college, students in the US are studying more advanced mathematics, algebra and even calculus. The way she interacts with her parents, and the reference to the long wait, makes me think she’s a younger teen or even a preteen. Still old enough to stay alone with her schoolwork in the heavily warded house, but not so old that she’s almost ready to take her studies to the next level.

My other thought was that her elven blood might mean she’s slower to mature than a full human, and that’s why she seems so young and is still so many years away from university. If that’s the case, a line or two would make it clear. Might she fuss a little bit about it, that humans her age are almost ready, but she has to wait?

There are plenty of reasons to read on, and plenty of questions to be answered. I’ll be interested to see how Nacie grows and changes in revision, and where her story takes her.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Infrasound by Matthew Davidson

I’m intrigued by the concept here: both science fiction and horror. This opening sequence says “hard SF” to me, with its mission-control setting and its focus on the sound coming out of space. But I do keep in mind the gothic-horror roots of the Alien franchise, not to mention the beloved trope, It Came From Outer Space. There’s a definite trend toward horror toward the end, as the sound overwhelms the characters and their setting.

The author’s note asks about pacing. That’s an important element of any story, regardless of genre. Here, with action that builds up to a crescendo of fear and dread, the pacing would tend to be rapid and escalating.

There are a few tricks of craft that can help to focus the narrative and, as a result, sharpen the reader’s sense of what’s going on.

1. Frame the scene clearly and coherently.

Make sure the setting is clearly defined and the characters move consistently within it. For example I’m not entirely sure whether David and the party are in the same room, or if he’s in mission control and the party is happening remotely via screen or hologram. I’m also not clear about why the sommelier is giving the speech. There’s some explanation about the Nobel laureate avoiding doing it, but I’m not getting the logic of having a wine steward take over the job. Would it make more sense if he were a hired master of ceremonies, someone who does this kind of thing for a living?

2. Short, concise, focused paragraphs

It’s amazing how much difference it can make to keep the paragraphs short and keep each one focused on a particular action or viewpoint. Try breaking up the paragraphs, keeping them to three sentences or so. See how that changes the way the narrative moves.

Trim the repetition, too, and notice how often words and phrases echo in consecutive or adjacent sentences. See what happens if these echoes go away, either by choosing different words or phrases, or by deleting the repetitions altogether.

3. Active voice

Like short paragraphs and concise sentences, active voice makes a significant difference to the pacing. Try shifting all the verbs to active, and getting rid of multi-word verb constructions. Though I have no personal problem with the word was, or the verb to be in general, try eliminating it as much as possible, and make sure every verb has a subject. Then see what needs to go back in. The same applies to gerunds—words ending in –ing—and clauses that connect with while and as. Break them up, make each one its own, short, active unit. And again, see what that does to the speed of the narrative.

4. Specificity

The more focused the narrative is, the more coherent it tends to be. One way to do this is to be specific. Instead of generic people acting or reacting, focus on one or two. Let us see what these particular people do and see and say. We’ll still get the sense that we’re in a room full of people, but we’ll experience the action more directly and immediately.

5. Exposition: To Be or Not to Be?

Science fiction loves its exposition, and part of worldbuilding is making sure the reader knows what’s going on and where and how. The trick is to know when to stop and explain, and when to keep things moving. Fast pacing means minimal exposition. Chunks of explanation act like speed bumps. The questions to ask are: Is this information absolutely necessary here? Does the reader need to know it right here and now in order to understand what is going on? If the answer is yes, how much information do they need at this point? How much is directly relevant to what’s happening? Can I wait to fill in the rest later, or leave it to the reader’s imagination?

This applies to both narrative exposition and dialogue. Dialogue especially is tricky because it may seem more active and direct and immediate to have a character Explain Things. It’s still exposition, and the story is still on pause. It may actually work better to toss in a line or two of exposition and then move on. The key here as elsewhere is to keep it short and keep it relevant. That helps to keep the story moving. And movement, of course, is what pacing is.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

 

Still There by Tracey V. Brown

While reading the opening of this novel, I alternate between feeling intrigued and feeling locked out. The moment when my excitement kicks in is with “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” At that point, I feel I finally have a solid sense of what’s going on. They’re going to try to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate, or at least pretend to try. My feeling of excited understanding continues and builds with “Just like that horror film online campaign,” which makes me happy because I get the reference to The Blair Witch Project and now feel even more solid in my understanding and pleased because I really liked The Blair Witch Project and anticipate I will like this, too. It’s like this story was in a mystery prize bag that was handed to me, and I couldn’t get it open for a while to see what sort of prize was inside. When I finally get it open, I’m glad that I took the effort.

The next couple of paragraphs get me pretty much fully up to speed, and then the story can move ahead by revealing the path. So that second half of the second scene gets me involved and makes me want to keep reading. Prior to that, I could have stopped at any time. For me, the first scene has too much mystery and not enough to engage me. Andy is making a coffin. While I don’t know anything about making coffins, it seems odd that he’s making a tiny, final shave off a piece before bringing the pieces together. How does he know they will fit, and how can he know one tiny shave is necessary? So while I’m not sure, I feel something is strange about his process, which is mystery #1. Ruth enters with “colourful paper stuff.” I don’t know what this is or how to picture it, so this is mystery #2. The word stuff at first makes me think of confetti. Later, she “shook out three or four rolls of paper in bright colours.” I guess this is the same as the “stuff,” but it doesn’t sound the same. If they are rolls, it would be helpful to use that word rather than “stuff” the first time the paper is mentioned.

I’m now puzzled by how she can shake out a roll. I end up picturing her with rolls of colored toilet paper, and she’s holding onto the end and dropping the roll, so it unrolls across the floor. And she does this multiple times with multiple rolls. I’m sure this isn’t what you mean, but as I try to figure out what you do mean, the only other images I can come up with are rolls of paper towels or rolls of crepe paper. I have no idea why she’s shaking them out. She then says she’ll make a banner out of the paper. But a banner is generally made of a single, large sheet of sheet of material. I try to make the toilet paper into a banner in my head, but it doesn’t work. I try to change the image in my head so that there’s just one large roll, but it still doesn’t make sense to me that she would shake it out and let it roll over the dirty barn floor. Why? And why did she bring the paper here and why is she telling Andy about it? She’s not asking him to help with the banner.

Then there’s the question of who the banner is for. It seems to be for someone they both fear, since they’ll speak about that person only obliquely. My guess is that the identity of this person is the mystery you want to raise in our minds. The problem is that I’m so preoccupied trying to figure out the paper, the person has little impact. I notice that there’s a person that they seem to fear, but it just blends in with all the other mystery. I don’t think you want me to pay as much or more attention to the paper than I do to the person. If that’s true, you need to limit the mystery to the things you want to be mysterious and make everything around those things super clear. Then there’s mystery #3, about how Ruth is going to kill her grandfather by aligning his bed with the floorboards. I wonder for a while if this is some obscure mythological method of killing vampires, like arithmomania. But I couldn’t find anything about it on the Internet.

So Ruth wants to kill her grandfather and may use this strange method either because she has strange powers to kill in this way or because her grandfather is strange and requires a strange method to kill him. Either way, I’m pretty confused and am feeling overwhelmed with mysteries. The houseleek is mystery #4. Ruth’s offer to protect his house from lightning using houseleek frightens Andy, for some reason. After working at it for a while, I see two mysteries within this one. First, “using” the houseleek seems to involve some danger. I don’t know what that danger is. Second, going into the woods to get the houseleek involves another danger. Mystery #5 is what Andy knows that Ruth doesn’t know. He thinks she will “Live and learn.” But I don’t know what she’ll learn. It seems to be some sort of burden, because Andy thinks maybe it’s “cruel to keep on.” I’m really not sure if this burden is the same thing that Andy knows but Ruth doesn’t know, because Ruth does seem to know about this thing. So I’m not even sure if this is one mystery or two separate ones.

Mystery #6 is what this saying means: “Family blood is different from family took.” Mystery #7 is what this means: “he might have been tempted to say the words that went with the action.” I’m not sure what the action is; his hand is touching the coffin lid, but that seems more his position (already completed) rather than his action. And I don’t know what words go with touching a coffin lid, why he’s tempted to say them, and why he thinks he shouldn’t. There are additional smaller mysteries. The mention of a plane that “murmured past.” Why Ruth carried these papers into the barn and shook them out. Why she’s offering Andy the houseleek repeatedly. She doesn’t seem to even like him. And he doesn’t seem very friendly to her.

The scene overwhelms me with unknowns. There are too many mysteries, too much unclear, too much withheld, and too much not vividly shown. That means none of the mysteries carries much impact. I’m just kind of lost in a swirl of confusion, occasionally glimpsing something that could be interesting if it wasn’t swept away by other things. I think the scene would be much stronger if you focused it around a single mystery–for example, who lives in the woods. That seems to be the one that has the biggest impact on Andy, and he’s the POV character, so it seems the most important. If you make everything around the mystery vivid and clear, it will create the perfect setting to highlight your fascinating mystery, like a velvet cloth on which rests a glittering diamond.

I don’t know everything that happens in the novel, but if you must introduce other mysteries, they could come in other scenes. Generally, though, readers need focus. Seven mysteries are too many to focus on. One mystery, beautifully presented and developed, can draw us in. The second scene is focused on the mystery of where the trail is, and that works pretty well. The one area of the second scene that I want to discuss is the use of “As you know, Bob” (AYKB) dialogue. This type of dialogue occurs when one character tells another things they both know. This is usually a problem because people generally don’t speak this way. If the two of us both know that bananas are a fruit, it’s unlikely that I’ll say to you, “Bananas are a fruit.” All the dialogue that reveals what the characters are doing, all the dialogue that gets me excited, is “As you know, Bob” dialogue. While I’m very glad to receive this information, the method of providing the information undermines the characters. It also seems odd because the novel up to this point has bent over backwards to withhold information, to have the characters speak obtusely, and to leave readers struggling to figure things out. This explanatory AYKB dialogue then seems forced by the author, who has decided to let the reader know what the story is about.

My suggestion is to try to even out your level of mystery/explanation, so we don’t have some scenes that overwhelm us with mystery and others that force the characters to explain themselves. In the case of AYKB dialogue, often a good way is to fix it is to have the characters, rather than stating facts they all know, express opinions about the facts. The story does this a few times, as with the line I quoted earlier: “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” This would be an AYKB if she’d said, “We’re not actually going to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.” I would think they all know this. But instead she’s giving an opinion about the fact. The AYKB dialogue comes out after that, when Nadine says, “That’s the plan,” which they all know, and when Lennie says, “My Edgar Redfers existed, and he really did disappear in the summer of 1909 while he was researching superstitions.” Lennie might instead say, “Once we show people that Edgar Redfers really existed, and he really disappeared in the summer of 1909 while researching superstitions, they’re going to be completely sucked in.”

The situation you reveal definitely draws me in and makes me want to find out how Lennie and company will fare in their investigation. I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Publication News

Karen L. Kobylarz has great news to share: “My story “As Day Follows Night,” an Editor’s Choice in June 2018, was published in the March 2020 issue of Eldritch Science. It also won first place in the 2019 N3F Short Story Contest. Thank you to everyone who reviewed this story in its many incarnations.”