Writing Challenge/Prompt

A natural disaster destroys a small mountain town–a fire, a flood, an earthquake–and the few survivors flee and don’t look back. Years later, someone stumbles upon what is left of the town. Every inch of the walls that are still standing in town are covered with highly skilled and beautiful paintings.

Who painted them and what do they mean? Put a character in the middle of that scenario and write a story about it.

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 February 2019, Short Story

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

Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water (Part 1 OF 2) by Peter S. Drang

“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” intrigued me, this month, with its quiet, slowly spun tension and how it makes a whole plot out of simple human behaviour against an almost blank canvas. It does a lot with very minimalist lines, but once answers arrived, I found myself feeling unsatisfied. So this month, I’d like to talk about ambiguity in fiction and how we answer the questions our stories put forward.

“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” immediately deploys a strong, palpable sense of atmosphere: simple, unelaborate, but almost surrealist. The disconnect between the unhurried calm of the exit test and the countdown, its growing sense of threat, is a highly effective source of narrative tension; the parallel of the clock ticking down, the clear blue sky as the group turns on each other feels focused in all the right ways—a demonstration of how the four survivors will, even without outside active threats, eventually destroy themselves. It’s the eerie simplicity of Eastern European political fiction, in a SFnal framework.

There are smaller tweaks I’d suggest: shortening the terms-setting scene between Corgan and the Proctor to aim for verisimilitude over exacting detail. The point of the scene as I read it is Corgan’s exactitude, his conviction that he’s covered all the angles, and I think it’s possible to convey that in a shorter, punchier scene; as it stands, the quibbling over details moves the scene from caution into dragging the pace.

I’d also suggest taking out the visual pauses in Corgan and Madrigal’s conversation: it’s known they’re talking between Bullog’s breaths, and the visual static it creates distracted from the story from me, instead of adding to it.

The third thing is the Shofnowsky poem. It has a function as almost a structural timekeeping device, but there’s a risk in including invented poetry in fiction—namely, that when we cast something as famous poetry, it has to stand up to that assessment. I’d suggest getting some poetry critiquer eyes on it, and suggestions as to how to make the poem work more strongly, or trimming it back sufficiently that it does its structural job but doesn’t make that extra work.

However, my main concern in the ending: ultimately, the resolution falls into territory that feels, to me, a bit typical—in the formal sense. For most of its length, “Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” is a suspension in an interesting situation, and it progressively develops certain questions about challenge, human nature, and crisis. When that narrative waveform collapses, though, it collapses into a kind of story, not this story: hubristic scientists analogized to gods, mothers out for revenge, gloating implanted poetry, a very Twilight Zone-style escalating-string-music oh-no reveal. The understatement that’s characterized the story throughout takes a sharp turn into melodrama. The threat has been, throughout, the group tearing each other apart—”There had been no trap in this place after all. The trap was our own nature, ourselves. Inescapable.” Suddenly, the threat is external manipulation by the Proctor after all—petty torture that was going to accomplish nothing all along—and everything the story’s achieved thus far is undermined.


As an answer, I’m not sure the twist of the current ending does the setup—the question—justice. This is an answer to Corgan’s predicament, to the pressures of trying to survive communally in a situation filled with guilt and blame, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for “actually, this is all revenge against which they are powerless” to be the answer: nothing in the thematic arguments, the questions that the story is asking that makes them a satisfying or contiguous answer. Twists can be an interesting surprise, can be shocking, but only if they add up in a way that satisfies the central narrative question the rest of the story’s set up. Otherwise, they’re just discontinuity. The feeling, for me, was a bit like seeing “How do you effectively lead people through a crisis after failure?” answered with “blue cheese”. The end has so little to do with the middle on the thematic level, and having seen it so many times before, I don’t find reducing a whole story to human pettiness with no chance of any growth for anyone especially interesting. The ending, as written, renders the entire read pointless.

So the main suggestion I’d have for this piece would be to ask: What could the why of this story be if it wasn’t a punchline? What is a more interesting choice of answer, one that fits more closely and derives more strongly from the questions it’s actually asking? Which answer takes the questions the story was asking seriously?

It’s not a category to be rated on OWW, but there’s a lot of value to be found for us as writers in cultivating a strong sense of our own subtext—or to put that into plainer terms, learning to identify from the patterns in our own work the questions our stories are asking. Find the questions—think about what the story is saying, asking, what it’s about—and it becomes easier to find an ending with the right fit, by answering or addressing those questions in a way that’s interesting: thoughtful, funny, different, emotional, profound. But for a satisfying ending, the story’s questions by and large should, I think, be engaged in good faith.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

Where Oblivion Lives (Los Nefilim) by T. Frohock (Harper Voyager February 2019)

A lyrical historical fantasy adventure, set in 1932 Spain and Germany, that brings to life the world of the novellas collected in Los Nefilim: Spanish Nephilim battling daimons in a supernatural war to save humankind.

Born of daimon and angel, Diago Alvarez is a being unlike all others. The embodiment of dark and light, he has witnessed the good and the horror of this world and those beyond. In the supernatural war between angels and daimons that will determine humankind’s future, Diago has chosen Los Nefilim, the sons and daughters of angels who possess the power to harness music and light. As the forces of evil gather, Diago must locate the Key, the special chord that will unite the nefilim’s voices, giving them the power to avert the coming civil war between the Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists. Finding the Key will save Spain from plunging into darkness.

And for Diago, it will resurrect the anguish caused by a tragedy he experienced in a past life.But someone—or something—is determined to stop Diago in his quest and will use his history to destroy him and the nefilim. Hearing his stolen Stradivarius played through the night, Diago is tormented by nightmares about his past life. Each incarnation strengthens the ties shared by the nefilim, whether those bonds are of love or hate . . . or even betrayal. To retrieve the violin, Diago must journey into enemy territory . . . and face an old nemesis and a fallen angel bent on revenge.

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Fantasy

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

Postcards, Act 1, Part 5 by Liz Coleman

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this submission, and some interesting and engaging characters. I like the fact it’s an f/f romance, with the tension of the current lover versus the late and lamented one who may not turn out to be dead after all—but who may not be alive, either.

A couple of things strike me as I read through the chapter. They rise from a similar source, and addressing them will help with the pacing and the overall structure of the narrative.

The first is the tropism toward internal monologue. Very tight viewpoint is particularly prone to it—first person or, as here, third person limited. We’re living the story inside the main character’s head, and experiencing events as she experiences them. She spends a fair amount of time thinking about what she’s doing, what she plans to do, what her options are. She’ll ask herself rhetorical questions:

Suzy Lou was a bright and shiny distraction into the dangerous unknown. But a distraction from what? What did she have? Making medicine for sea elephants, maybe?

A little of this can be lively and engaging, but it can slow the movement of the story to a halt while the character talks to herself, particularly if she’s asking herself rhetorical questions. It might be more effective to turn some of the internal discussion into dialogue, to develop some friction that moves the plot forward.

But there’s a pitfall in dialogue, too. Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do, including develop character and conflict, convey information, and advance the narrative. For the most part it needs to be tightly focused. It has to say enough for clarity, but not so much that it drags down the pacing. It should explain, but not overexplain. It’s a balancing act.

The dialogue in this section wants to do several things. It’s developing the relationship between Loretta and Suzy Lou. It’s rounding out backstory and pointing toward the next portion of the narrative. It conveys important information and introduces a twist or two.

What it tends to do in this draft is explain and summarize rather than dramatize. It’s dialogue as synopsis. Here for example:

“Maybe she’s alive, maybe she’s dead, but I need to know. And while I don’t want to hurt you, I do want to help you, and I think you’d rather have an adventure and be loved than hide from pain. I want to keep being around you. I want to face danger with you. You say the Misties can marry a human and become a world-crosser, well, I want to marry you and do that for our people. Isn’t a little pain worth something bigger?”

There’s a whole lot of story-stuff here. Opening it up, giving it air, exploring the different themes and conflicts, will make the story stronger and give the characters and their interactions more depth. If Hazel is alive, how can Loretta contemplate a new marriage? What does Loretta feel about loving two people at once, especially since she’s been mourning one of them for dead? How does this new knowledge affect her on a multitude of levels?

Meanwhile Loretta is telling Suzy Lou what Suzy Lou wants—not pausing to let Suzy Lou speak or act for herself. The marriage proposal comes on all at once, without buildup. It’s just suddenly there, and Suzy Lou is like, well, huh. OK. Sure. Party! (Which is an interesting insight into her psychology and presumably that of the Misties in general.)

Watch for these draft-habits when making notes for revision, especially the tendency for a character to tell another character what she’s feeling and thinking. Let that character say it or, better yet, show it. Let them interact. That’s where the story is, and where character development happens.

Tension and suspense grow there, too, as do emotional arcs. Dialogue is a part of them, but it needs to be more truly interactive, with more back and forth. Let characters speak and feel and react for themselves. Let emotions build and decisions develop. Instead of having Lorretta or Alice tell us what’s going to happen, let us see it happen.

It doesn’t need to be lengthy or complicated. Just a line here and there will often do it. Shift focus from explanation to drama, from character telling to scene showing.

The same applies to backstory. Think about how to weave it throughout the narrative, and how to hint and tease here. Give us what we need to know in this particular moment, but it’s all right to leave some ambiguity, to let us discover new information more gradually. A little mystery can keep the reader reading, and build anticipation as she picks up clues along the way.

In short: Slow down a little bit. Open up the explanations into (concisely) dramatized scenes. Give the characters room to react as well as act and talk, but at the same time, pare and prune the internal monologue. Let the dialogue really earn its keep. Then your story will flow more smoothly and your characters will have a chance to shine.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Science Fiction

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

Zombie Rock Stars by Bobby Harrell

I can see why the Author’s Note indicates that the finished story will have a different title than “Zombie Rock Stars,” but I have to admit, that’s what caught my eye first as I made my Editor’s Choice picks for this month. It’s not a fancy title, but it’s evocative.

It is a spoiler for the plot surprise. On the other hand, sometimes a reader will keep reading because of the spoiler. It’s a different kind of experience: anticipation rather than unfolding revelation. Even knowing what the punch line is, the reader is eager to find out how the story will get there.

That’s how I read this submission. I figured out what the ending would be as soon as I got the parameters of has-been journalist and classic rock star, knew it when I saw the security measures, but read on with relish because the idea was so much fun. What might have added to the fun for me would have been a line or two about rock immortals—Keith Richards, anyone? Especially since the story is set in 2039. He could conceivably still be alive by then, but it would be a bit of a stretch…unless he’s had the treatment, too. But that’s not essential to the story–there’s plenty there to keep me reading.

As for the story itself, I’d recommend a thorough copyedit of the final draft before submission. In this draft, the verb tenses and T.J.’s gender both fluctuate in ways that point to revision artifacts rather than author planning.

I found myself wondering about the worldbuilding as I read. The  background in general has a feel of 2019—few changes, nothing that stands out as saying This is the future. Just think about how different 2009 was from now—over the weekend I was watching a TV series on Netflix from 2010, and the phones were downright ancient in size and design. In 1999, plots could revolve around people hunting for a pay phone, because everybody didn’t have a phone in his pocket, let alone one that was also a camera and a powerful computer.

For a short story, there doesn’t need to be a ton of worldbuilding, but one or two background details would go a long way toward establishing the futureness of it all. Small everyday things that nobody thinks about. Instead of a phone, for example, what if Jared is told to turn off his phone chip (which, it might be implied, is implanted in his head or arm)? If he’s given a pad and a pen, does he know or remember how to use them? Does he try to find the save button on the pen, or look for the power switch on the pad? I find myself doing that now when I’m reading a book—I look for the timestamp at the top of the page, and sometimes I try to turn the page by tapping it. Habits form fast and die hard.

The draft also made me think about how dialogue works to establish character and advance plot. Real-world dialogue doesn’t work in fiction because so much of it is throat-clearing and social filler. Very little of it introduces new information or moves a story forward. Introductions, hello-how-are-you-how’ve-you-been-how’s-the-wife. Telling each other things the reader would already know from previous scenes. Explaining things that are clear to the reader from context.

The best story dialogue conveys information that’s new to the reader, while establishing the personality (the voice, both literally and metaphorically) of the person speaking, and clarifying her relationship to the person she’s speaking to. It’s generally concise, and it cuts away once it’s conveyed the information the reader needs to know.

Jared and T.J. clearly have catching up to do, but all we need to know as we read is that they do this. A line or two about how they swapped updates would do the job, and leave more story space to build up to the climax. In short: the pacing would be quicker and the climax punchier.

It’s perfectly fine to write it all out in draft. Getting it down on the page or screen makes it clearer what can stay and what needs to go. Just keep what’s new, what’s essential, and what’s most effective. And, in this story, that will help the humor as well: sharp, biting wit and the final Ahhhh Shiiiit that we (well, I) have been looking forward to since we saw the working title.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Horror

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

To Accept The Things We Cannot Change by Bobby Harrell

The idea of accepting “the things we cannot change,” when applied to people bitten by zombies, is pretty haunting and disturbing.  That really kept me thinking after I finished the story.  The story uses familiar elements, but juxtaposes elements not often seen together, giving this story a fresh feel.  This is a good technique to use to create originality.  Last night I watched the movie You Kill Me, which juxtaposes hitman/crime elements with alcoholism/recovery elements, creating an original story.  This story, by combining alcoholism/recovery elements with zombie apocalypse elements, also creates an original story.

The general shape of the story seems solid.  The opening makes us think we’re in a standard zombie tale, so the turns the story takes–Larissa discovering she’s taken shelter with alcoholics in the midst of an AA meeting, and then discovering they’ve all been bitten by zombies–are pretty surprising.  Ending with the key idea, as also stated in the title, helps to give that idea impact.  So the premise, theme, and structure all work pretty well for me.

Other elements didn’t seem as strong.  The characters don’t seem to behave in a consistent or believable way.  For example, Clayton and Neil seem to be arguing to let all human beings in, yet they aren’t letting in zombies.  Why not?  Aren’t they human beings?  Don’t they deserve safety and comfort, in Clayton’s and Neil’s opinions?  A page after arguing to let everyone in, Clayton is calling the zombies “sick bastards” and arguing against interacting with them.   So his ideas on this seem contradictory to me.  If he is intended to be contradicting himself, then we need a character to call him on this, so it doesn’t seem like a mistake.  Larissa, for example, could easily raise this point.  If he isn’t supposed to be contradicting himself and zombies aren’t considered human, then that point needs to come out.  It’s not clear now, so I end up pretty lost about what the AA members stand for and what the precise nature of the conflict is.

While the AA members claim to want to provide shelter for the suffering, they don’t even keep watch for people outside who may be suffering and need shelter (or do anything more active to find survivors and help them to the shelter).  They ignore pounding on the door until Tate calls out for help.  This makes their statements about helping others convincing.

Larissa’s actions and decisions are also hard to understand and believe.  I’m pretty much with her up until she remembers the incident on the bus.  I get pretty lost there.  It sounds to me as if the bus came upon a group of zombies who started to break into the front door, and those on the bus tried to get out the back door.  Then I think Larissa helped an old woman get out the back door.  Yet the story, and Larissa, treat this as if she did something bad and, more than that, that she acted like a zombie.  I don’t know what she did that was bad, and I don’t know in what way pushing a woman toward a door is acting like a zombie.  Then Larissa was seemingly bitten by a zombie, though I don’t know how or when that occurred.  After that, I think she went home, looked in the mirror, and thought she looked like a zombie.  I don’t understand what that means, specifically, and I don’t know how she could be a zombie then and not a zombie after that.  So this key section, which leads to Larissa’s epiphany and change, is unclear, and because of that, has little emotional impact.

I also don’t believe the revelation that she’s been bitten.  We’re in her point of view and she knows she’s been bitten, so we should know too.  We shouldn’t only learn about it when she visually reveals it to others.  It’s always problematic to withhold key information from the reader that the point of view character knows.  The reader feels cheated by the author.  I think we could see Larissa being bitten at the start, and see her hiding the bite when she sees the shelter.  That would add tension to the story.

The confusion over what happened to Larissa on the bus is part of a larger issue, which is that the rules by which zombies exist in this story are unclear.  Accepting “the things we cannot change” and having “the courage to change what we can” has no clear meaning when we don’t know what those things are.  For the premise and theme to have power, we need to know what they mean, their implications, so when we read that final line, it will strike us like a thunderclap.  That means knowing how a person turns into a zombie, roughly how long it takes, and whether there is any way the process can be stopped.  For example, if shooting yourself or someone else in the head can stop the transformation, then the “courage to change what we can” seems like it would involve all of them shooting themselves or each other.   Is that what Larissa is accepting at the end?  Or is she accepting something else?

A few other quick points.  This story involves a major realization and change by Larissa, which means that her character is an important part of the story.  To believe her change (convincing the reader of significant character change in a short story is one of the most difficult things to accomplish), we need to have a strong understanding of her character at the start, to see her growth or internal conflict developing, and to see the causes of the change.  But this story is focused mainly on action and dialogue, and the action and dialogue provided doesn’t carry much subtext, which could provide insights into the character.  So Larissa seems mainly like a stand-in for the reader, someone with the typical desires a typical person would have in this situation–safety, survival.  The last half page suddenly provides additional information that makes Larissa seem very different from what we’ve thought, and when we look/think back over the story, we don’t see much evidence to support this different view of her (at least I don’t).   So this feels like the author forcing the character and the story in a new direction, rather than the character and story developing as it naturally would.  I think either the action and dialogue need to carry more subtext, giving us a richer sense of the character, or the story needs her point of view (her thoughts and perceptions) to be more fully developed.

Finally, I think some of the details in the story could be better chosen.  Some details contribute to the confusion.  For example, this description–“The chairs around the scratched white folding tables were a mix of steal folding chairs and plastic diner stools on wheels”–makes me picture about 7 tables and 28 chairs, most of them filled.  It takes me a long time to realize that only 3 people are living in this building.

In other cases, the details seem excessive and distract from what’s important.  For example, this description–“he was deeply tanned, had perfectly brushed back white hair, a grey droopy mustache and wore a green plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans”–seems to include a number of details that aren’t significant (the droopy mustache, the fact that his shirt is green plaid and his pants are blue jeans) and doesn’t point me clearly toward what’s important, which in this case, I think, is that Clayton seems untouched by the chaos outside.  The fact that he’s deeply tanned sends me off on a tangent–does he have a tanning bed?  Has he been to Florida recently?  The white hair suggests he’s elderly, which never comes into the story.  I think you might say, “He was the first person she’d seen in clean clothes in a week,” and that would convey something significant.  If you want to give us a more specific image, you could say something like, “His plaid shirt and jeans struck her as strange.  Then she realized they were the first clean clothes she’d seen in a week.”

The story has a really interesting, unique combination of elements and the potential for a big impact at the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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


Grapevine/Market News

Uncanny Magazine is now open to submissions for Disabled People Destroy Fantasy from 1/15/2019 to 2/28/2019. They are looking for stories from writers who identify themselves as disabled. Disabilities can be visible or invisible. Stories should be between 750 and 6,000 words. Payment is 8 cents per word. Full details can be found here.

B Cubed Press has announced open calls for  three (3) new anthologies to be released in 2019. They are looking for stories of between 500 and 5,000 words. Submissions open immediately and close on April 15, 2019, for these anthologies:

• Alternative Bedtime Stories for Progressive Parents
• Alternative Apocalypses
• Tales from the Space Force

Pay is 2 cents per word, plus royalties. Full details can be found here.

Nightscape Press has two new open calls for submissions.

Their anthology Nox Pareidolia will open to submissions on April 1st and will close to submission at the close of that month. Payment is  6 cents per wor, and payment will be capped at 6,000 words.

Nightscape Press will open to short fiction collection submissions on May 17th and will close to submissions May 31st. Payment will include an advance and royalties to both the author and a charity of their choice. Short story collections must be 40,000 words or more, and include at least two to three previously unpublished works.

Full details for both these open calls are found here.