Publication News

William Delman wrote to say: “Just wanted to let the community know I have two pieces out right now. “Head in the Cloud” is currently up at The Arcanist, and “Known Issues” is in Mythic #6, available now from Amazon, and other retailers. Also, I’ve very happy to announce my story “The Endless Lives of Kama” was purchased by Daily Science Fiction (pub. date pending).

I’d like to thank everyone at the workshop who helped me polish and sharpen these pieces, and I’m looking forward to being more active in the workshop in the months ahead.”

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

Waters of Life by Jim McDougall

Writers often tend to focus on figuring out what happens next.  Each sentence leaves them with that horrible question hanging before them.  But good writing often arises not from thinking about what happens next, but from focusing on making each moment, the now of the story, as intense and powerful as possible.

“Waters of Life” has several powerful and memorable moments.  At Cedar Lake Resort, Brian sees a very old photo of the nearby dock and realizes his wife, Julia, is in the picture.  I’ve read some other stories where things like this happen, so that in itself didn’t strike me as powerful.  The memorable moment, for me, occurs when the image of his wife becomes blurry:  “He couldn’t tell if Julia was actually there, or if he had mistaken her for a shadow, or even a smudge or wrinkle on the paper.”  This created a vivid image in my mind, created uncertainty that intellectually engaged me (as I tried to figure out what was happening) and gave me a chill.  Was that Julia in the photo?  How could she be there?  Why did she fade?

Another powerful moment occurs when Julia, who we know is hours away at work, appears in Brian’s cabin.  This build a strong atmosphere of dread.  And when Julia leads Brian to the end of the dock and Brian follows her off the edge, that’s a creepy, startling, and powerful moment.

The big picture of the story is not as successful as these individual moments.  Much of the power of the big picture of a story arises from two qualities:  unity and focus.  Unity means all the elements of the story (plot, character, setting, point of view, style, genre, symbols, themes, imagery, etc.) work together to creat a particular effect.  Focus means that the effect created is clear and limited.  While this story has some nice writing and some strong moments, it is not yet unified or focused.  A good test to see if your story is unified and focused is to try to summarize it (including the ending) in one sentence.  If you can’t, or if the sentence ends up being very long and having multiple parts to it that don’t strongly relate to each other, then you probably have a problem.  In this case, my summary would be something like “A husband follows an image of his wife into a lake and drowns, and his wife discovers a woman who looked just like her drowned in the lake the day before she was born, and the manager’s mother reveals, I think, that she has used her magic powers to kill Julia and possibly to kill the other woman years ago.”  This sentence, with three independent clauses connected by ands, describes what I’d call a stringy plot.  Each part feels pretty separate from the others rather than strongly interconnected.  So I don’t feel a lot of unity or focus.

Let’s look in more detail at various parts of the story to understand this “stringiness” better.  The setting is given some prominence through the amount of description it receives and the location of the description (at the opening of the story and at the opening of another scene–very prominent locations), suggesting the cabins are deceptive or threatening in some way.  Yet that isn’t true.  The reader is promised a story about a dangerous resort, but that is never delivered.

Quite a bit of emphais is put on Julia’s workaholic nature, suggesting the story will be about the marital troubles this causes, yet that turns out to be irrelevant to the story, beyond providing an excuse for Julia to arrive late.

The first chunk of the story, ending in Brian’s death, suggests the story will be about this ghostly Julia figure.  We later learn that this look-alike woman, Samantha, drowned the day before Julia was born, implying Julia may be the reincarnation of Samantha (which then makes me wonder how Samantha can also be a ghost).  But the ghost never appears again in the story, and Julia never makes any attempt to contact the ghost or fight the ghost to get Brian back, or destroy the ghost, and she never shows any sign of being a reincarnation of Samantha, beyond her birth date and her appearance.  So we seem to be promised a ghost story, and then a reincarnation story, but those promises are also not fulfilled.

Finally, we meet the resort manager’s mother, Cathy, who seems to have supernatural powers that can “alter the very fabric of time and space.”  While we don’t see her using this power, it seems that she has killed Julia in her sleep, and that she may have killed Samantha, though I’m not sure why she killed either of them.  The story then, ultimately, seems to be about a malicious woman who uses her power to kill people.  But it’s unclear whether she had anything to do with the appearance of Samantha’s ghost or the death of Brian–the things I care about most in the story.  And this story about a malicious, powerful woman hasn’t been set up.  We only have a small piece of this story.

So it feels like we have pieces of several different stories here rather than one unified story.  I think any of these stories could be involving and disturbing, but we need to get just one story.

One other point I’d like to mention is that Brian and Julia generally seem to be victims with no chance of success.  A story generally needs a protagonist who has some power, some ability to affect circumstances.  That creates suspense as we wonder whether the protagonist will be able to escape from some difficult situation, solve some problem, or achieve some goal.  The protagonist doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but he needs to have at least some, so he can struggle to succeed and we can have hope that he might.  Neither Brian nor Julia seem to have any power to escape their situations.

I hope this is helpful.  I was quite drawn in by the opening of the story, and I really enjoyed those powerful, memorable moments.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Grapevine/Market News

Artemis Rising is an annual month-long event across all four Escape Artists podcasts, celebrating the voices of women, non-binary, trans, and marginalized gendered authors in genre fiction. During the month of September, PseudoPod Horror Podcast Magazine seeks submissions to celebrate ARTEMIS RISING, a special month-long event across the Escape Artists podcasts featuring stories by any author who identifies as a woman, to any degree.

Payment is 6 cents per word, they are looking for stories between 2,000 and 6,000 words, and a special submission portal will open on the website in September. General submission guidelines and contact information can be found here.

Publication News

Rhonda (R.S.) Garcia wants us all to know: “My story, “The Anchorite Wakes”,  was just published in Issue 143 of Clarkesworld Magazine. This was a dream market for me, and not one I thought I’d crack. Somehow, they bought the first thing I was ever brave enough to send them.
Figured this group was the only one that would get how big this is for me. You can read the story here.
In other good news, my story “The Bois” was translated for a special issue of the Spanish spec fic magazine SuperSonic honouring Ursula Le Guin. It has also been picked up for two anthologies, Sunspot Jungle Volume II and the Apex Book of World Scifi Volume 5. Not a bad year all around.”

Writing Challenge/Prompt

This month try a world-building challenge. What does it take to build a believable empire for a book or a story? Consider the society, the religion (or lack of religion), how people are fed, clothed, and how they go about their daily lives. Are all empires huge and far flung? And are empires by definition evil, or is that a tired cliche?

Consider all that and more, then write a story from the point of view of a citizen in your empire.

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).

Grapevine/Market News

An open call for writers.

The John Silence RPG & Anthology is a collective projective reinvisioning of Algernon Blackwood’s “John Silence” short stories to focus on non-white/POC/ethnically and racially marginalized psychic detectives in an alternate American noir setting spanning the 1920s to the 1990s. Pay is 6 cents per word up to 6,000 words, and a flat $30 for poetry.

Full guidelines can be found here.

Uncanny Magazine is reopening to submissions on August 9. Pay is 8 cents per word for fiction, and a flat $30 for poetry.

Full details can be found here.

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

The Mark by Forrest Brazeal

I was impressed, this month, with the slow rush of atmosphere “The Mark” creates: a quiet simplicity that deepens into a gripping emotional choice, while avoiding the didactic. It’s a perfect example of the small engagements and sufficient narrative payoff Former Resident Editor—and editor of F&SF—C.C. Finlay described last month as essential elements of a slow-build story, and it uses multiple levels of craft to make that payoff work. So this month, I’d like to talk about reinforcing a character’s arc with our craft choices.

“The Mark” uses imagery well to foreshadow its core personalities. Joel’s boots “[making] imprints in the hard-baked ground” telegraph, exactly, his intent. Selah, suffering under the sun because her hat’s designed not to protect her, but to comply with Biblical readings and other people’s eyes, is summed up almost exactly in the first paragraph. Where Selah lands at the end is summed up just as perfectly in the last paragraph, with the shed skins of her ground cherries falling “unheeded” to the bus floor as she sheds the husk of her old life.

While there’s some room to trim in the first lines—a few too many images make for a visual tangle—they set the emotional scene appropriately in smart, small ways: the sun “assaults” the vegetable stand; does that with “mindless” intensity in a story that’ll prove to be about assault, and about the choice against obeying mindlessly. The tie between the small choices made here, on the line level, and how the story develops set thematic benchmarks for the rest of the piece to develop.

And from there, “The Mark” quickly starts to develop and complicate its characters. Joel’s constant boundary pushes and control attempts are recognizable to readers, even if Selah doesn’t catch the red flags: He telegraphs classic abuser grooming behaviour, which creates tension in scenes which would otherwise feel quite quiet, but his desire for bigger things feels sincere. Mrs. Miller’s iron rule complexifies into something more nuanced—she’s obviously working through some trauma about the outside world—and then dives right over the cliff into horror as that trauma makes her take a knife to her own daughter.

The characterization here is what makes “The Mark” work for me, and it’s particularly strong in the secondary characters. No one in “The Mark” has Selah’s best interests at heart; yet regardless, everyone in “The Mark” gifts her something precious that she needs. In a sense, Joel is right: Getting out of her comfort zone means she can do amazing things, and she can get good work in Richmond, and it’s the money he paid her that she uses to flee. In a sense, her mother is right: Mrs. Miller describes to the letter what Joel wants to do to Selah, and that arms her against what she overhears Joel say. It’s learning to metabolize those gifts as tools she can use in her own choices, and on her own terms, that makes for a powerful and relatable arc of growth.

This is where the metaphor of writing a character arc chorally comes in: Think about the difference between a single voice singing a line of melody and layered voices supporting that same line. There’s a resonance and impact to a multiple-voiced song, and that’s something we can achieve as prose writers when we line up all our elements of craft to mirror with our protagonist’s arc.

On the prose level, “The Mark” starts with largely short, simple declarative sentences, and moves to a more lyrical voice as it goes. Sentences get physically longer; punctuation becomes more complex. Dialogue is tagged more often. The physical form of the story gets more nuanced, more complicated, and bigger just as Selah’s world—and worldview—do.

The word choice shifts alongside it: in the first scene, where the outside world—passing cars—is an assaultive force, “each throwing its fine spray of dust and gravel against the faded wooden sign on the front of the vegetable stand.” By the end, the shadowy hills are sweeping past, and she “danced away the pain in the long grass behind the house”—this is bigger, more haunting, more joy-infused language.

On the worldbuilding level, Selah moves from very small and isolated spaces to progressively bigger, more populated ones—and the tone of those spaces changes. The first four scenes at the vegetable stand establish a small space, and then motion outward to the mall in Charlottesville—and ultimately, out to Richmond. That progression is another voice bolstering the movement from Selah’s small internal world of rules, black-and-white morality, and compliance to bigger and more nuanced choices.

I won’t go through each element of craft, but there’s a direction to the way they line up to resonate with Selah’s journey—and that’s what makes “The Mark” largely effective for me. Instead of Selah’s arc standing alone, in an inert setting of worldbuilding, prose, and style, the other elements of craft support it—they all move from stark and simple to complex—and create the feeling of momentum despite the narrative action being quite small and simple.

There are some characterization points I would suggest considering more closely: to a young woman who was raised to fear sexual violence, and who was just betrayed by a man she thought cared about her, wearing skimpier clothes outside her own room for the first time would likely not be “strangely exhilarating”. I’d recommend reading accounts of women who grew up wearing burqa being forced to go without them overnight, after national bans, for a primary-source perspective.

Selah’s disowning of her religion also seems abrupt. There’s a lot of territory between a first, tentative rebellion and “Well, maybe I’m not Anabaptist either,” especially for a girl who has few social ties outside her home, does love her family, and has even a basic understanding of her own mother. She has a lot at stake right now—an entire life, her whole social support network, safe housing—and I’d suggest considering how large a risk that statement holds for her.

I’d also suggest rethinking Joel’s appearance. There’s a trope being played to there—”short, pudgy, prematurely balding, with dirt-blond strands of hair growing long over the spot.” I’d ask why it seems important to connote badness through that specific physical description, and why it’s important that Joel not be good-looking, acceptably masculine, conventionally physically attractive. Like all the other decisions in “The Mark,” this one has a subtext—one rooted in certain social insecurities and shorthands about Good Men and Bad Men. It’s a subtext worth thinking about, especially in a story whose entire arc involves realizing that people—and things—are not as they look.

Overall, however, this is strongly rendered and lands its ending perfectly, a complex squiggle of freedom and fear and unease. Best of luck with it, and I look forward to seeing it in print!

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

Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, 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.

Deadfall–Chapter 3 by Elizabeth Underwood

There are quite a few cool elements in this chapter. Lots of supernatural species. Teleportation. Magical dangerblood a la Twilight and True Blood. And plenty of action and tension.

I agree with the author’s note that the ms. needs a good, thorough copyedit, not just for grammar and syntax (“off of” should delete the “of,” for example; comma splices and run-on sentences; and what I call revision artifacts, such as “would have normally of,” which looks like a correction from “would of” to “would have” that missed deleting “of”) but for verb tense (past or present? Choose one) and narrative mode (first person or third?). But the copyedit comes very late in the publishing process, and I think there are other things to address before applying that last coat of polish.

One thing to watch out for is Red’s tendency to synopsize through internal monologue. She sums up backstory and explains the situation past and present and to come, in between bits of dialogue and action—for example while Vampra is threatening her; she explains what’s happening, sketches out her plan, and figures out what Vampra’s plan is. Much of this could be dramatized, or shown in scenes—let Vampra reveal her own motivations, and let us see what Red does to get out of this predicament and get Charles to safety.

Internal monologue is a very tempting trap, especially in first-person narration. Most people of whatever species have one going anyway, and a writer looking for that extra bit of realism may want to provide a full record of what her character is thinking, extrapolating, musing, planning. However, just as real-world dialogue is full of filler and throat-clearing and small talk and irrelevancies, and fictional dialogue lets all this sink into the background and gives the reader the good-parts version, fictional character-musings can dispense with all but the most directly relevant bits.

Here, that means letting the reader see what happens as it happens, rather than being told about it as Red plans it. Likewise, rather than having Red tell us what Vampra wants to do, let us see her do it, and then maybe Red can have a brief moment of “I knew it” even while she does whatever needs doing at the moment.

Watch out too for the tendency to summarize when writing it out would be more effective and dramatic—the vampires’ argument in the hallway, for example. Let us hear their words as Red hears them; give us the direct experience of what they’re saying. It won’t take up much more space than the synopsis does, but it will read more vividly and move the story forward more quickly.

It might be a good idea to do some rethinking about the conversation with the not-vampire, as well. They come to an agreement very quickly, and Red doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of trouble with it. It’s a little too uncomplicated. She’s indenturing herself for a year to a creature whose species she’s not even sure of. She is in a tight spot and Charles needs help stat (though that could use some clarification at the beginning of the scene as well—it’s not immediately obvious that he’s under a spell; just that he’s a really deep sleeper), but she’s already let us know she has a plan for that. We need more sense of why her plan is no longer viable, and why she’s willing to pay such a high price with so little negotiation.

It needs to be messier. More sense that the stakes are high and the price is, too, but when she balances them out, she can’t make any choice but the one she makes. It’s visibly tough, but also inevitable. Let us feel that through her. Then we’ll read on, hoping she finds a way out, but expecting that it won’t be either fast or easy.

That’s how plot moves—through friction. Things being tough and complicated. Characters navigating the minefield, trying to stay in one piece, but sometimes they get lost, and sometimes bits get blown off. In Red’s case, possibly even literally.

Good luck with this, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, 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.

For The Love Of An Enemy by Penelope Lee

Wouldn’t you know, although I’ve seen quite a few titles in the genre and snagged a fair number of those for my TBR pile, this is the first time I’ve actually read steampunk space opera. I am now intensely curious as to how railroad tracks work in space. I can’t quite envision it, and I keep wondering, but that’s just me being me, and it’s not what this excerpt is trying to do in any case. It has other priorities.

Beginnings are hard. We have to draw the reader in, provide just enough information to keep her reading, and still manage to keep the whole picture in mind—even for explorer-writers, who discover the territory as they go, there’s still the worldbuilding and the setting and the basic structure of the story to keep track of.

I like this one. There’s plenty of setting and background to establish where we are, what kind of universe this is, and who the characters are. Those characters carry enough interest to keep me reading, while the pacing moves along quickly and the story builds itself, element by element. The writing is deft and confident: this writer is in command of her prose.

A beginning like this, particularly when it’s followed by a scene set in the past, can go in several directions. It might be a framing device for the main story, which proceeds from the second scene and ends on the prison train. Or it might be the main story, and the second scene is a flashback, the beginning of an explanation as to how the protagonist ended up on the train. The whole story could be told through braided scenes, interweaving past and present, or it might settle in one timeline or the other and develop itself from there.

It does seem that the first scene is a frame; the second scene promises to be a story that the narrator tells within that frame. She calls it a love story, and the title backs it up. This could be straightforward, or it could be ironic. We don’t know yet: we don’t have enough proof of her reliability as a narrator.

There are a few intriguing twists. The idea that prisoners’ memories may have been removed, or that a prisoner might have had hers restored—voluntarily? Involuntarily, as a punishment?—promises to add to the complications of the story as it unfolds.

What I said above about narrative reliability comes into play here. If memories can be tampered with, can our protagonist be sure she’s remembering what really happened? Are her memories incomplete? Might they even be false?

All of that is still an open question, here in the first two scenes. The prose is strong, the imagery powerful and sometimes harrowing. It makes me, as a reader, want to keep going, to find out what happens. To get to know these characters better. To find out how this universe works. And, of course, how humans have managed to turn interstellar space into a steam-era railway.

–Judith Tarr