Writing Challenge/Prompt

You almost never dream, at least not dreams you remember. That all changes on your forty-fifth birthday. Suddenly, your nights are full of vivid dreams, dreams that exhaust you and dreams that frighten you. The worst part is you suspect all your dreams are coming true.

Put a character in that scenario and write a story about what they do.

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

Walter Williams wants us to know: “My short story, The InfoCoup is coming out in the fall edition of Abyss and Apex magazine, AND That same story has been chosen to be part of the anthology The Best of Abyss and Apex, Volume 3.  This will be available for purchase in December.

While the short story itself wasn’t workshopped on the OWW, it is an
excerpt from a novel that I partially workshopped on OWW.  The very first
draft of the one chapter actually was chosen as the editor’s choice in ages
past.  (I’m willing to guess 2005 or 2006)”

Congratulations, Walter!

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Inflexible (Part 1 of 2) by James Victor

“Inflexible” caught my attention this month with its meditative narrative voice; its deeply-considered, half-familiar, half-odd, vivid worldbuilding; and the way it handles funny and horrible and mournful events together, and draws them all to a satisfying conclusion. And it achieves that effect using small cues—facts, established understandings, and details—that all start in the very first scene. So this month, I’d like to talk about developing small things into larger ones to create a sense of unity in our work.

“Inflexible” is set in a richly developed world: one that feels like one of the less-utilized corners of Renaissance Europe. There are just enough standard tropes present here—vampires, executioners—to solidly establish place and genre, but the way they’re handled feels fresh, vivid, and alive. There’s a sense, reading this piece, that there’s been first-principles thought given to how those tropes might really work—and that focus on logistics and social dynamics creates a concretness in the setting that makes it feel real and relevant.

The second element in play in “Inflexible” is the narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is an excellent observer, balancing his relative silence and lack of general agency by offering up a steady flow of details: Ganoes’s anxious tapping fingers, the little clue of how Harrad rebuffs Ganoes’s intimacy by placing his sword on his knee.

Those little details add to the feeling of immersion and credibility in “Inflexible”, but they also each serve as tiny seeds for larger issues that will show up in the story—and that’s where this piece really starts to work well for me: foreshadowing.

The first scene of “Inflexible” is rife with details or comments that each grow into larger—pivotal—narrative concerns later on. Ganoes’s anxiety is a great clue, in hindsight, that he was anxiously up to something unusual—personal—with this commission, and that turns out to be the motive that brings Harrad down. The rules prohibiting Harrad from resting his greatsword in any comfortable way discreetly prefigures the story’s entire conflict, where there is no way Harrad’s duties let him carry his office without getting seriously hurt. The narrator’s uncertainty about whether to act or hang back is a establishes him as a character who can’t yet parse the swirling social context around him well enough to exercise good judgment, and it’s a tiny microcosm of his absolutely fatal error in letting the almoner have his guest.

What foreshadowing does in a piece of fiction is prime the reader’s expectations: it’s a little piece of information about a character or a situation that’s offered in order to make the later reveal feel more inevitable, more satisfying, more right, and all of those little hints are deployed very effectively. When the larger, more serious incidents establish major plot points, none of them feel abrupt, unreasonable, or out of nowhere. Nothing that happens feels out of line with these characters’ personalities and tendencies, because as a reader, the story’s already alerted me that these are things those characters would do. An emotional arc is being resolved, not opened, and so every turn in “Inflexible”—set up as they are—feels incredibly satisfying.

That smooth machining of plot elements makes every development emerge smoothly from the last, and the inevitable tragic ending feel right, because it’s couched in all kinds of hindsight. In retrospect, as a reader, I can see exactly which traps, miscues, and inevitabilities made this fall together.

The other element that makes “Inflexible” work for me is the tone. I feel like it’s not exceptionally common to read a story with this kind of material that takes the perspective and tone this one does. While the execution itself is incredibly grisly, it’s described with a quiet, sad, almost bitter compassion that takes the sting out of what’s being depicted; I never felt as if “Inflexible” was aiming to shock, or to hurt.

Overall, this is a very strong piece that doesn’t twig a great many suggestions for me. I would consider, if word count is a factor, trimming the conversation about women in prison, the guard, and sexual assault considerably; it’s one of the few elements in this piece that doesn’t pay off in any way later, and what it gains in character development—who the guard thinks the narrator is, and establishing for readers how that’s untrue—might not be enough to merit the space it’s taking up.

To answer the questions in the author notes: Yes, I think it very much works, and best of luck finding this piece a home!

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

On The Shelves

 Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Alliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press, September, 2019) 

A major first collection from a writer fast becoming one of the stars of the genre… Aliette de Bodard, multiple award winner and author of The Tea Master and the Detective, now brings readers fourteen dazzling tales that showcase the richly textured worldbuilding and beloved characters that have brought her so much acclaim. Come discover the breadth and endless invention of her universes, ranging from a dark Gothic Paris devastated by a magical war; to the multiple award-winning Xuya, a far-future space opera inspired by Vietnamese culture.

When She Reigns (Fallen Isles) by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegan Books September, 2019) 

The First Dragon– The Great Abandonment has begun. Panic has seized the Fallen Isles, where no one knows which god will rise next. Mira Minkoba believes her dreams hold the secret to bringing an end to the destruction, but in order to save her people, she’ll have to find a legendary treasure: the bones of the first dragon.

The Last Hope– Mira’s desperate search leads the Hopebearer and her friends on a dangerous journey into the heart of enemy territory: the Algotti Empire itself. The empress is more than willing to help—for an impossible price. And as tensions escalate beneath the shadows of the risen gods, Mira grapples with a terrifying question: What will she have to sacrifice to preserve what she loves? The explosive finale to Jodi Meadows’s Fallen Isles trilogy is ablaze with sizzling romance and fiery magic as Mira’s fight to save dragons from extinction evolves into a mission to save her world from annihilation.

Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer (Jo Fletcher Books, September 2019)

Someone is murdering the Merry Men . . .

It’s been a mostly quiet life since Robin Hood put aside his pregnant wife Marian, turned his back on his Merry Men and his former life and retreated to a monastery to repent his sins . . . although no one knows what was so heinous he would leave behind Sherwood Forest and those he loved most. But when friends from their outlaw days start dying, Father Tuck, now the Abbott of St Mary’s, suspects a curse and begs Marian to use her magic to break it. A grieving Marian must bargain for protection for her children before she sets out with a soldier who’s lost his faith, a trickster Fey lord, and a sullen Robin Hood, angry at being drawn back into the real world. It’s not long before Marian finds herself enmeshed in a maze of secrets and betrayals, tangled relationships and a vicious struggle for the Fey throne.

And if she can’t find and stop the spell-caster, no protection in Sherwood Forest will be enough to save her children.

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

BIONIC MAGIC (CH 1: THE HATCHING) by Lizzie Web

Science fantasy is an interesting genre. On the one hand it’s science fiction—humans in space for example, exploring strange new worlds. On the other, it has magic, and often magical beings. When it works, it’s a glorious crossover.

This chapter has some promising elements. Energy creatures in the form of mythical beasts, a protagonist with magical healing powers, and humans as adversaries, experimenting with alien species. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of story to set up.

One thing I would suggest for this opening chapter is to shift the focus a little bit, to establish key elements of the worldbuilding up front and to tighten up the action and the characters’ interactions. The opening paragraphs tell us about the urgency Corva feels, and show some of the scenery through which she is racing and some of the creatures that populate it, as well as establishing some of the elements of the magical system. The effect is rather confusing, because there are so many details, but those details don’t completely clarify where we are or why Corva is so desperate to get to Moonelsa.

One alternative would be to skip past the tour and go straight to the nest. The details that I as a reader want to know are the ones that establish genre, location, and a broad sense of what’s going on. I’d like to be clear that we’re on an alien planet, which could be as simple as naming it. The orange sun is a good hint, but I need more; I’m distracted by what seems like earth-style mythical fauna, and would have thought we were in Faerie if I hadn’t had the author’s note on the genre. I think we need to know about the human invaders early on, and to be clearer about what they did to Moonelsa.

Corva’s flight is only really relevant if something happens that affects the plot. Somebody tries to stop her from helping the dragon, or she stumbles across somebody or something who will play a part in the story later—a human drone or scout, maybe. Otherwise, the focus of the chapter is the hatching, and Corva’s arrival there and what happens after that. That’s where the story begins.

The chapter does one thing absolutely right: it ends in such a way that I had to check out Chapter 2 to find out what happened. Good going! And helpful for me because the author’s note there told me about the alien planet and cleared up some questions I had about the humans. I would have liked to have that information in the first chapter.

The author’s note for Chapter 1 asks about characterization. Here I’m going to start with my usual advice in workshopping drafts: Don’t worry about the finer points of the prose until the draft is done. Let the words come in any way that works. Revision is the time for pruning and polish.

So, if the novel is still in progress, set the comments below aside. Save them for later, when it’s time to get down to the word and sentence level.

Characterization has a lot of layers. How characters act, think, and feel, the choices they make, their mistakes, their motivations, are all part of the process. But the foundation of it all is the words, the choices the author makes, the way characters are described, how they talk, what they do—and especially what kinds of things they do or say over and over.

There’s a lot of repetition in this draft, and certain words and concepts repeat over and over. I particularly noticed the variations on shaking, shuddering, and trembling. These words were what I call frequent-flier words. It’s a good idea to run a global search on these, and think about which can be changed into other words and concepts, and which can be disposed of altogether.

The impression I got as I read was that the characters’ shuddering and shaking (and stammering also, which is a form of verbal shakiness) was meant to convey fear and anxiety. Clearly it’s a terrible situation, but it’s not completely clear in the draft how terrible it is, or why both Corva and Moonelsa are so visibly upset. By the end I had a better sense of what was going on, but I would have liked to know a bit more a bit earlier: what happened to Moonelsa and why this hatching is so different from all other hatchings.

Another aspect of this is the way Moonelsa is described as a very powerful being. Corva is in awe of her, and we’re told that Corva’s powers are nowhere near as strong. But Moonelsa herself is so shaky and trembly and timid, so generally ineffectual, that there’s a disconnect between what we’re told about her and what we see.

This is a great opportunity for strengthening the characterization. This mighty magical being has been reduced to a quivering wreck, cut off from her people and denied their support and their rituals. If this is made clearer, and we get more of a sense of how Corva feels about it (and how Moonelsa has changed from what she was before the humans captured her), the scene will be that much stronger. We can see what an appalling thing has been done to Moonelsa, and we’ll understand better how and why Corva is the only person who will (or can?) help her.

Best of luck with this novel. The concept intrigues me and the characters and situations have a lot of potential. I really want to know what happens next, and how Corva is going to deal with the humans who have invaded her world and violated one of its most powerful magical beings.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Center Of The Universe 2.0, Chapter One, Part One by Noel Gonzales

I have a particular fondness for hard science fiction with a spice of wry or gonzo humor. This section of a chapter is on its way to ticking those boxes. And yes, I appreciate the author’s revised note. It’s amusing to envision our protagonist as “a big blue hand with an eyeball in his palm.”

I also approve of the efforts to pare the prose. Not every novel needs or should have that; sometimes, in some works and genres, more is actually more. What’s important is clarity, to make sure the reader understands what’s going on. Too much or little information can be equally confusing. On one hand there’s not enough information; on the other, there’s so much that it’s hard to tell what’s relevant and what’s not.

Here I think the prose could be even leaner and clearer. There’s one rhetorical device that works if used extremely sparingly, but it’s easy to tip over the top. That’s the repetition of a word or phrase in connected but slightly different contexts:

He could see the same numbers. “Good.” 

Good. As long as the supercomputers aboard The Lab were happy in crunching the parameters for the Muenghen Drive on the capsule. Good. As long as they were happy with the Muenghen Field the drive generated. And good as long as, when the field was activated, his capsule didn’t become a blossom of plasma as the previous two tests.

The repetition of “good” is effective the first two or three times, but after that it gets a little heavy. Cutting it back and varying the phrasing would get the point across and still keep the force of the word.

In this passage I also note an issue with grammar and syntax, the rather confusing final clause. It would probably be clearer with the insertion of “in” after “as”—“as in the previous two tests.”

There is a tendency throughout toward run-on sentences:

It would be an honor to be memorialized as a hero of the Empire who sacrificed his life but Plinge saw the merits to surviving an actual, successful launch.

There’s a lot going on here. Breaking it up would give each concept its own space, and make the whole easier to understand. And here again, there’s a bit of a syntax bobble: “saw the merits in” would be more correct.

He crossed his arms and watched the columns of numbers scroll and waited for them to settle on a specific locus.

This sentence might work better if divided into two or three, just to take a breath in between actions.

I note by the way that the sentence implies that he’s shaped like an Earth-type human, with arms to cross—a nice bit of description that’s directly relevant to the context.

Another aspect of clarity is organization of actions and ideas. A paragraph like this one

After a few seconds, he opened an eye to look around. He’d braced himself, prepared for anything, everything but not nothing. Not a thing. Well, he was alive. There was that. The knowledge allowed him to relax and breathe. Not a fucking thing. All the systems on all the monitors showed green. He checked the field integrity. The field was gone. Collapsed? He toggled off his mic. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,” then toggled it back on. “Control, any idea what happened?”

packs a lot in, with another example of words and phrases repeated over and over. The progression is chronological, which helps, but there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep up. One simple solution would be to break each separate action and reaction into its own paragraph. That way it’s easier to follow, and there’s time to take it all in before moving on to the next action.

I’d like to point to the use of dialogue, or more often monologue, as well. Not just expletives but the repeated use of “Wha’?” as a form of transition. I think I see what it’s trying to do: add a living voice to what might otherwise be straight narrative, and set a breezy, humorous tone. I do wonder if it’s just a little too breezy; if it sends the signals it’s meant to send. There’s almost a sense of mid-twentieth-century movie or tv dialogue about it, which distracts from the science-fictional setting and slackens the tension of the plot. There may be other ways to move the story forward and convey the characters’ reactions, which are a better fit for the genre and the story.

And finally, point of grammatical order: it’s is a contraction for “It is.” The possessive of it is “Its.” It’s one of those lovely little quirks of the English language.

I think this novel has quite a bit of potential. The opening sets us up for headlong action and stranger than strange new world and universes. A little further paring of the prose and a little more attention to grammar, syntax, and style will make the story come through more strongly and clearly, and give the characters even more room to shine.

–Judith Tarr

Spotlight On Joshua Palmatier

 

Hey, I’m fantasy author Joshua Palmatier, an OWW alumni, a member since almost the very beginning.  I’d like to introduce Zombies Need Brains.  It’s a small press I founded in 2013 because I got hooked editing SF&F themed anthologies for DAW Books.  I would have continued editing anthologies for them, but due to a shakeup in the industry around 2010, they were forced to drop their anthology line (or at least cut it back drastically) and I got tired of waiting for them to bring it back.  So in a fit of insanity in the summer of 2013, I created ZNB.  I wanted it to be a professional market, with professional pay rates, professional cover art, and professional design.  I wanted it to treat writers and artists with the respect they deserve (being a writer myself), and above all I wanted it to succeed while still paying authors and artists on time.

Since those lofty aspirations first took root, ZNB has managed to publish thirteen SF&F themed anthologies, from steampunk vs aliens to sword & sorcery to time traveling bars to were-creatures other than werewolves.  Every year, I pick a few themes I think are cool and then collect a small group of what I call “anchor authors” and, with their help, we run a crowdfunding campaign in order to generate the funds to produce the anthology.  The backers of the campaign are essentially preordering the anthologies, so I k now whether the themes I’ve chosen are actually good or not.  (If they aren’t interesting, then the Kickstarter won’t fund, right?)  All typical for a small press or an SF&F anthology being put on the market today, right?

Well, here’s where ZNB is different.  Unlike traditional publishers that put out themed anthologies (few and far between today), ZNB fills out the rest of their anthologies with an open call for submissions, because I believe in finding new and strong voices in the SF community.  The only way to do that is to let anyone submit.  So while about half of the anthology is filled with known names in the field, such as Seanan McGuire, Faith Hunter, S.M. Stirling, etc., the other half of the anthology comes from the best stories I can find in the slush pile generated by the open call.  Yes, this is a ton of work and those 7-10 slots in the anthology are highly competitive (and getting worse as the number of submissions each year grows), but it’s worth it to find those new voices.  This is something I, as the founder of ZNB, firmly believe in:  open calls are necessary if we want the field to stretch and grow.  Often, the best story in the anthology—or at least the story I think is the best—comes from the open call.  And I love to see a New York Times bestseller right next to an author who’s just made their first professional sale.

ZNB is running a Kickstarter right now where we hope to fund three brand new anthologies with the themes of apocalypses, food, and old tech finding new life.  Click through the link to read more about it and, if you can, back the project!  I’m here, though, to give you all at OWW a little insight into what it takes to get a story from your brain onto our pages.

Let’s suppose you’ve already brainstormed and have come up with an idea that fits the theme.  As you can guess, that’s not enough.  We get a ton of stories submitted where, when I’ve finished reading the story, I end up saying, “OK, that was a cool concept, but there isn’t a story here.”  In essence, the author wrote out their idea, but they haven’t yet taken the time to develop a story around that idea.  And that’s key.  It’s extremely rare for ZNB to accept a submission based on idea alone.  This is why we rarely accept stories less than 2500 words or flash fiction–it’s not that the writing isn’t good, it’s that it’s difficult to get across a completely developed story in that short a timespan.  It’s possible (we’ve accepted one or two in our past anthologies), but it’s rare.

The biggest element missing from the “only an idea” story is a character arc.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s usually a character in the story, but the character is only there in service to the idea.  The story needs to be turned around.  The idea should be in service to the character, causing the character to change in some way throughout the course of the story.  I want to be drawn into the characters and change along with them.  So the character needs to be interesting, sympathetic, and above all engaging.

After capturing my attention, you need to hold it, so the pace needs to be fast.  Remember, this is a short story.  Each word needs to matter, so keep things tight and focused.  Don’t let yourself wander into subplots and secondary threads or secondary characters, as you would with a novel.  Keep yourself on track with the main idea.  You can always expand the story later on into something larger if you want, but for now, focus.  If you’ve already written the story, then during revisions you need to look at the main idea and cut everything else out.  Narrow the story down to whatever is needed for the idea and the character arc.  Everything else must go.  Tighten, tighten, tighten.

Along the way, make sure that the character arc you’ve developed actually relies on the story concept.  They can’t be two separate threads that you just happen to have woven into one story.  If you remove the cool idea from the story, does the character arc still hold up?  If the answer is yes, then you haven’t really found the story behind that idea.  The character arc should collapse when the cool idea is removed, making the story impossible.  The character’s change during the course of the story should come about BECAUSE of the cool concept, not in spite of it.

So, when thinking about submitting a story to ZNB’s slush pile, start with a cool concept.  Build an engaging character arc around that concept.  Mesh the two together.  Tighten the prose.  Let it sit for a few weeks, then go through and tighten it again.  Because that’s what we’re looking for:  a tight, focused story where a cool concept and interesting character arc merge into a stunning work.

Now, take these words to heart, sit down, and write that story.  Good luck!

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Rosary by Robert Balentine

Two qualities that stand out for me in “Rosary” are the organization and the process details.  So many stories are confusing or unclear, or they simply don’t carry me from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next.  This story provides some very clear cues so readers understand what each section is about and how it relates to previous and future sections.  For example, the story begins, “There were days when salsa making was a chore.”  This serves as a topic sentence, letting us know what the rest of the paragraph will discuss.  It also allows us to anticipate that later in the story, we’ll learn about days when salsa making wasn’t a chore.  And that’s exactly what happens.  This type of organization allows us to move effortlessly through the text and understand the relationship between the various parts.

Another strength that I enjoy is the detailed description of the process.   Often in stories, important processes are skimmed over because the author either doesn’t know how the process works or doesn’t care.  If the process isn’t important to the story, then we don’t need much (or any) detail.  But if it is important, as the salsa making is here, then putting us in the moment and providing vivid details that show us how the process works, gives us confidence in the author and brings us close to the character.  Learning a new process is also a pleasure readers enjoy, so including that in your story makes it more enjoyable.

For me, there are two main areas that I think could be improved.  First is the voice.  We’re in the third person limited viewpoint of Maria.  She’s from Colombia and speaks in Spanish a few times in the story.  But the narration, made up of her thoughts and descriptions of things, doesn’t use Spanish or sound influenced by Spanish at all.  For example, “Maria thought the hood was a fitting headstone above her mother’s salsa, possibly her greatest culinary achievement, which was saying something.”  My Spanish is from vague memories of my Argentinian father and from high school classes, so I’m no expert.  But the word “fitting” and the phrase “greatest culinary achievement” don’t feel like things that someone with English as a second language would be likely to use.  Also, when I ask for the Spanish term for headstone, Google provides, ” lápida mortuoria” or mortuary stone.  So it may be that someone from a Spanish-speaking background would think of a “mortuary stone” rather than a “headstone.”  And the phrase “which was saying something” is a colloquialism (a phrase used in informal language) that might be less likely for someone with English as a second language to use.  Again, I’m no expert, but as I read, the dialogue and the narration don’t feel like they’re coming from the same character.  Doing research by talking to/recording people with backgrounds similar to Maria, finding memoirs by people with similar backgrounds, or watching videos with such people could be very helpful in creating a strong, consistent voice for this character.

The second area I think could be improved is the plot.  For me, an experienced reader of horror, thrillers, and mystery, the plot is too familiar and lacks twists or surprises.  I enjoy the idea that Maria is putting poison into her salsa, but in a mild way.  I’m hoping for that to be the first step in a plot that goes on to twist and turn.  The story provides a series of clues that something is dangerous about the salsa, so when I learn that Maria is against guns and her customer is pro-gun, it’s easy to conclude that the salsa is poisoned.  It seems convenient (meaning manipulated by the author) that the person in charge of food for the NRA’s annual convention knows Maria and her salsa and hires her to make it for the meeting.  The last section of the story, from the time the man thanks Maria to the end, doesn’t really add anything for me, because it’s revealing things I already know.

I think there are two ways you can think about the plot weakness.  One is that there is no struggle, when a plot generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal.  Maria just has to make the salsa, something she’s done many times, and hand it to the man.  Putting in the poison doesn’t cause her any trouble.  Since this is just a little longer than a flash piece and thus may imply sections of the story that aren’t actually present, the struggle could potentially be implied.  But there is no implication that Maria had to struggle to befriend the man or get his business.  The man seems to think he’s Maria’s friend.  And there’s no sense that Maria had to struggle to get the NRA convention to come to her town.  So the story seems to be that the job to provide food to the NRA fell into Maria’s lap, and she made the poisoned salsa and handed it over.  No struggle.  So one way to address this plot weakness would be to add struggle.

Another way to think about the plot weakness is that Maria’s plan goes according to plan.  Whenever a protagonist has a plan, it should never go according to plan.  There could be unexpected roadblocks or unintended consequences.  I’m a big fan of unintended consequences.  They can have a huge impact on readers.  For example, the story reveals that the man was expecting 50 jars of salsa, and Maria, in her enthusiasm, has made 100.  Assuming 50 will be sufficient for the NRA meeting, what will be done with the other 50?  Might the man give some to his wife to feed to his family?  Might she give some to her friends?  And who is going to be at the NRA annual convention?  I took a quick look online and found this description of the NRA barbecue, an event likely to involve salsa:  “an evening full of friends, family, firearms, and fundraising.”  It sounds like children would be present.  I think this could be a powerful unintended consequence of Maria’s plan.  She imagines killing adults, but she ends up killing many children as well.  She might get a call from the man as people are dying, or she might see the report on television.  I think that could reveal a more complex truth and could provide a twist at the end that would carry strong emotion.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed the focus, clarity, concision, and vivid details in the story.

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

 

Grapevine/Market News

Dream Foundry has begun accepting submissions to their 2019 short story contest. This contest is open to non-pro writers only. No entry fees, SFF stories up to 10,000 words, and first prize is $500.00 Deadline for entries is October 13, 2019. Full details are here. 

Wordfire Press is opening submissions for their new anthology “Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem” from September 1 to October 31, 2019. They are looking for stories up to 6,000 words and payment is 6 cents per word on acceptance. Full details are here.

Deep Magic E-zine is open to submissions until September 30, 2019. They are looking for stories anywhere between 1,000-40,000 words, pay 6 cents per word, but payment is capped at 10,000 words. Full details are here.