Publication News

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

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

Reviewer Honor Roll

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

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

[ September 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

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

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

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

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

 

Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, Science Fiction

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

The Totem by Kevin Zarem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, Horror

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

Spoons by Robert Tarrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review October 2017, Fantasy

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

Beneath The Canyons Chapter 1 by Kyra Halland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

William Delman wrote to tell us he’s  having a really good month: “I have another one to add! I just sold “Donuts’ End” to The Arcanist. I want to thank everyone in the workshop that helped me sharpen this one, including Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Gregor Hartmann, Jonathon Hoffman, Jack Jonnes, Will Mason, and Robert Paul. The story should be available online December 22nd.”

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Imagine waking up one morning and finding your house full of pixies, brownies, sprites, and dragons. Magic is real.

Write a story about how people learn to cope.

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).

Publication News

William Delman has good news to share: “I sold a piece that was in the workshop recently. “Nothing to See Here” will be appearing in SciFan Magazine later this month–Issue 10 is available for presale on Amazon now. I’d like to say a big “thank you” to everyone in the workshop that provided me with suggestions and comments for this one, including Gregor Hartmann, Skye Allen, Jonathan Hoffman, and Allan Dyen-Shapiro. I have another one to add!  I just sold “Donuts’ End” to The Arcanist. I want to thank everyone in the workshop that helped me sharpen this one, including Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Gregor Hartmann, Jonathon Hoffman, Jack Jonnes, Will Mason, and Robert Paul. The story should be available online December 22nd.”

 

Allan Dyen-Shapiro writes: “Hi, all. I have some major thank yous to send out to those who critiqued my short story, “I’m Proud of You, Mum,” as it is now my second sale ever to a market paying pro rates (ninth short story sale in total.) It will run in volume 1 of the anthology series, Mind Candy. The editor/publisher, Alvin Mullen, is shooting for publication in Jan/Feb 2018.Those I owe thanks: Rob Graves (who, among other things, corrected my first attempt at writing in British English); Jon Paradise (even though you thought my ending was twee, making you one of the very few people on this planet who has ever told me I wasn’t being dark enough 🙂 ); Steve Brady; Gene Spears; Gregor Hartmann; and Zvi Zaks. And the rest of this wonderful community, as I would never have gone from knowing absolutely nothing about writing fiction to having actual sales without the help of OWW.”

 

Editor’s Choice Reviews October 2017, 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 Advantage Is Decadent And Depraved by Bobby Harrell

I had fun with “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: it’s stuffed full of personality, quickly builds the kind of universe that spills off the page, and puts forward a sharp critique of planetary SF institutions that feels organic without ever stopping the sense of adventure. It does, however, not always keep its pacing steady, and so this month I’d like to talk about ways to efficiently pack that information in without slowing the pace of an adventure story down.

“The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” leads with some great sensory metaphors—”Old air scrubber fluid, weeks-old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can” gives readers an immediate sense of the tongue-in-cheek voice of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”, shows us the core of Eileen through her own personal metaphor set, and tells us what kind of wonder space travel is in this universe: in a word, it’s not. This is a space future built on work and parts that break down, a messed-up pragmatic space future, and a character who’s easily as broken-down, pragmatic, and messed-up. That’s a lot of work and scene-setting to pack into a few tidy lines, and on top of that, they’re fun.

The worldbuilding, overall, in “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” really works for me. There’s a great balance being struck between getting in all the technical and biological details that give a science fictional future verisimilitude and not letting them stall out, drown, or overshadow the narrative. The amount of detail about this world that Eileen works in while moving the plot forward gives it a real texture: a future that’s not just unevenly distributed, but actively innovating, quietly diverse, and on the move.

Those details do great work at also being thematic: phrases like “that industrial glue smell people mistake for new” are great little tells for what’s really up with the Advantage, and where this story is going to go. And the little spotlight on Lantham’s bourbon as he tells Eileen that her drug use makes her untrustworthy is a funny, sarcastic, and really effective tell.

The one exception is the section marked by a note regarding a better backstory, or less of one. I’d agree that less is more; the information dump in that section stands out as clumsier than the rest of the work in the piece, and I’m not sure laying recent history out in its entirety sends the story forward. There are good insights in that section, but they’re drowned in the exposition.

There’s more of a mixed gift in Eileen’s narrative voice. While it’s a real core strength, I wonder if there’s some advantage to be gained here by trimming it back somewhat. She lays on the Hunter S. Thompson/Spider Jerusalem gonzo journalist schtick rather thick, both in narrative voice and her dialogue, and as workshop alumnus Rae Carson says, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is really five. It’s contrasts—in voice, in style, in intensity—that stand out to readers in prose, and I’d suggest trying out a draft that builds in some contrasting levels in Eileen’s voice. Trim out some of the fourth-wall-breaking direct address and some of the jokes that don’t quite land (I’d mention the horn one specifically), and build in some quiet parts, some more transparent narrative, and watch the quirks, character, sardonic asides, and keen observation stand out that much more in comparison.

I’d also suggest some light trims on the sentence level. There are places—notably when Eileen’s going to and attending the meet-and-greet, getting drugs from the doctor in the med bay, explaining the Simulation Chamber, and the hallucination—where she’s functionally saying the same things twice or explaining unnecessarily to the readers, but not in ways that build out character, voice, or atmosphere. There’s a palpable drag in those sequences, and the same level of implication that “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” uses when talking about worldbuilding and technical specs will work when talking about people and relationships, too.

That drag echoes on the more structural level of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: there’s potential for much stronger pacing in the middle of the piece. While the first few scenes of the piece are strong, directed, and goal-oriented, once Eileen goes on her personal tour of the Advantage, the pacing becomes episodic; each discovery or encounter doesn’t quite lead logically or string together with the next to build anything bigger. While the fakeout with the doctor leads somewhere, the interaction with Delta, the Simulation Room, and Eileen’s time with the jet never quite pay off in any fashion, and they’re all basically cancelled, in terms of consequences, by the pirates. Lantham mentions them, but it’s obvious he was going to have it out for Eileen anyway; they’re not quite carrying their weight in the overall piece.

Ultimately, they’re distractions from what Eileen’s suit and Rabbit were already doing—and while it’s easy to believe that this was part of her plan all along, to play a trick on Lantham and the Fleet, it’s a little harder to believe because the readers don’t get enough subtextual clues to that plan to see it click together in hindsight. Playing a trick on characters fits perfectly with her personality, but when the trick’s also on the readers, by omission or otherwise, it feels less organic and less satisfying. I’d suggest building in a trail for Eileen’s plan: one that’s slight and constant enough that it connects when she announces it, and builds reader satisfaction, instead of chipping away at it.

With the exception of a somewhat light landing on the ending—that much story deserves a little more weight in the last beat—”The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” is doing some fabulous work for an early draft. I’d love to see what it accomplishes after revisions, and best of luck with the piece!

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