Publication News

Jaime Lee Moyer wants to let you know: “Back in the day, I workshopped a book called The Witch Of Sherwood on OWW. I just sold that book, and an as yet untitled second book to Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. The novel is now titled Brightfall, and will be out in July of 2019. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the OWW members who read and commented on the chapters I posted on the shop. You pointed me in the right direction. Thank you all.”

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

West Of California, Chapter 8 by Steve Brady

This is an intriguing chapter. With the help of the synopsis, it comes through pretty well for a cold read; there’s enough background information to get a sense of who the characters are and what the larger story is about.

The narrative voice is distinctive, with a wry sense of humor. As I read, I can actually hear a couple of my college friends talking in that same tone, telling a long, rambling tale in between hits of controlled substances. It very much has that vibe.

What I’d like to suggest in the next round of revisions is further work on the structure of the story. There is so much going on, so many things happening over so many years. Much of it we do need to know in order to understand what’s happening in the story-present, and there is a clear attempt to break up the passages of summary and synopsis with bits of dialogue and character interaction.

That’s a good start. As a reader I’d like more air in the story-room—by which I mean, slowing down for the dramatized scenes, giving them more space, with less synopsis in between. Do we need the blow-by-blow of Laura and Andy’s life and travels, or can we move faster from major event to major event? Can the dramatized scenes fold in more backstory as characters talk and interact, and dispense with at least some of the summaries?

One way to write backstory like this is to tell it in a series of flashbacks with characters acting and interacting. For example in the Tucson sequence, rather than summarizing what Laura did and with whom over those years, the story might be told in a handful of scenes. The seeds of those scenes are already there: Laura’s meeting with Brad in the midst of her empty life of smoking and painting, and how and when she introduces him to Andy; a vignette of Brad caring for Andy while Laura takes the leap into signing up for courses, in which we see how they all feel about it, and maybe we get to feel Laura’s sense of freedom with maybe a stab of guilt; the rave and the party (which might be combined for further narrative economy); the day Laura finds out Brad is leaving.

The last scene is partly written, but it needs more. More emotional complications. More resistance from Brad. More friction—because friction is how things move in this universe, including stories.

Transitions between scenes don’t need to be written out as such (“Two years went this way,” for example). It’s quite acceptable to jump from scene to scene with a bit that establishes where and when it stands in relation to the last one—Brad might say to Laura, “I’ve been spinning my wheels for two years. I’m bored. I want out. I’m going to New York.” And then Laura reacts, and maybe Andy does something in reaction to that. Maybe there’s an argument. When it’s over, Brad has been backed into a corner—and how does he feel about that? Trapped? Pissed? Resigned? A combination of all three? And then on to the next important event, which in this case would be a scene set in New York.

None of these scenes needs to be long or elaborate. The word count may not be a whole lot more than is already there in the summary. It’s the difference between passive voice and active, between a story summed up from a distance and one that’s happening right in front of the reader.

Exposition definitely has its place, and so does synopsis, but what brings a story to life is characters acting, moving, talking, living–sometimes in messy ways, with complicated feelings. Then the reader gets to experience that life with them.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Pat Benatar and The Black Eyed Gods Of The Earth by Pierce Skinner

In a story centered around characters in a very disturbing cult, the author risks alienating readers who may find it difficult to relate to such characters.  This story instead draws readers in by starting with a situation we can easily relate to, three children exploring the countryside and discovering signs of a stranger.  The desire of Isaac, the protagonist, to steal the stranger’s Walkman is also something most of us can understand.  The disturbing cult they are part of is only hinted at in the opening scene, creating curiosity.  Future scenes provide additional hints and glimpses of the activities of the cult, drawing us further into the story, building momentum, suspense, and a disturbing atmosphere.  That works well.

Another strength of the story is that the cult feels both believable and unique.  I’ve read many horror stories about cults, and few of the cults portrayed in those stories have felt believable.

For me, the protagonist and the plot are not as strong as these other elements.   After stealing the Walkman and giving it to a girl to impress her, Isaac is a fairly passive, reactive protagonist.  He lets his friend, Alex, take the blame for stealing the Walkman and be killed.  He listens to the spirits of his dead, childhood friends as they provide hints about what is to come.  (Isaac believes they are gods, but they don’t seem like gods to me.)  When his dead friends kill his boss, he runs, but this is reactive–an action taken in reaction to what others have done–rather than active–an action taken because the character forms a goal and is struggling to achieve it.  It’s not clear that Isaac has any goal.  I don’t think he believes he can escape or even postpone his fate.  While he takes guns, I don’t think he believes he can stop them with bullets.  This makes his running pretty empty; nothing seems at stake.  If he wanted to do something else before meeting his fate, so he was racing to do that, he would be more active with a stronger goal and something at stake.

This relates to a larger point, which is why we should care about Isaac.  Why should we care whether there’s a way for him to escape his fate, and why we should care what he chooses?  I don’t know what Isaac has done with his life in between living in the cult as a child and meeting his fate as an adult.  He seems to have just been marking time.  If that’s so, maybe he realizes he’s wasted the time he had when his dead friends show up, belatedly realizes what he should have done, and now wants to do that thing before his time is over.

For example, perhaps there’s one person from the cult who has survived.  Perhaps it’s the girl he liked, Sandra.  Isaac could have been seeking out the others over the years and discovering when and how they died.  This would make Isaac more active, not just the recipient of information from other characters.  Perhaps he’s discovered Sandra is in a psychiatric hospital or prison, but he’s been afraid to seek her out, both for her sake and his own, thinking perhaps one or both of them might be overlooked by the curse of the cult.  Perhaps, in gathering all this information, he’s formed a theory about when they will be killed.  This could bring a ticking clock into the story and add suspense.  Right now, the suspense builds until around the scene that ends “I don’t breathe till I’m back on the highway.”  Then it declines, because we know Isaac can be killed at any time, and that time is just up to the author, not up to anything Isaac does.  (Of course the author controls every aspect of the story, but the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding according to a change of cause and effect, and that the protagonist has the ability to influence the course of events.)  If Isaac thinks he knows when Sandra will be killed, and when he will be killed, then Isaac will have to race against that clock if he wants to accomplish anything before it’s too late.  As the time he has calculated for Sandra’s death approaches, he may feel the need to call her.  And she could reveal that strange things are happening.  Sure now that she’s about to die, Isaac decides he doesn’t want to hide anymore; he wants to try to save Sandra.  He might think that if he can delay her death so it doesn’t happen at the proper time, she might be spared.  If he dies in the process, that would be okay.  Or he might think he could sacrifice himself in place of her.  Or maybe he thinks she knows something that could save both of them.  Either way, Isaac has a goal, something is at stake, time is short, and suspense is high.   Maybe he can affect events or maybe he can’t, but at least he believes he might.

This struggle can also help set up a difficult decision for Isaac.  The story establishes that Isaac has a choice to make:  die or have the same existence as his dead friends.  Right now, Isaac decides to be with his friends because they are, after all, his friends.  But there’s nothing much at stake in this decision and the choice doesn’t seem difficult for Isaac.  That means it doesn’t carry much emotion or impact.

Instead, for example, Isaac might have decided long ago that he wants to die.  He doesn’t want any twilight life like his friends have.  He struggles to save Sandra, and we can see how much she means to him, how precious these few minutes they have together are to him.  But he fails, and she becomes another dead friend.  Now he faces a difficult decision.  Accept life after death and be with Sandra, or choose death and lose her again.  I think whatever he decides, it will have more impact.

To further clarify the stakes and the decision, I think we need a clearer sense of what this life after death is.  As I mentioned, his dead friends don’t seem like gods to me.  They seem very limited in their power, serving some more powerful being.  And it’s not clear what they do or how they live when they aren’t killing someone from the cult.  I’m not asking for a thorough description of their lives; I’m asking for a few key details that will make the stakes higher and Isaac’s choice more difficult.

One final point I want to mention is that quoting even one line of lyrics from a song requires permission from the rights holder (unlike quoting one line from a story a novel), which can cost hundreds of dollars.  My suggestion would be to make up a song rather than quoting from an existing one.

I thought you did a nice job of gradually revealing information and making me relate to characters that are part of this disturbing cult.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Who is the most unlikely hero (aside from me) you can think of? Your next door neighbor, or your third cousin who gets a rash at the thought of danger or an adventure?

What would this person do if the fate of the world rested on her/his shoulders–rise to the occasion (surprising everyone) or let us all go down in flames?

Now go write a story about this person.

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).

Spotlight on Joshua Palmatier

Kickstarters and Open Calls

I’m stopping by Spotlight today to tell you the story of my small press, Zombies Need Brains, because it highlights some of the good and bad changes in the publishing world over the last ten years.  Before I created ZNB, I was writing fantasy for DAW Books (and I still am).  But along the way, Patricia Bray and I got interested in editing anthologies and through a series of coincidences and hard work, we managed to pitch a few ideas to DAW Books.  They were interested in two of our projects, which were then produced … and we were subsequently hooked on editing anthologies.  They were too much fun to do.  We didn’t want to stop.

Unfortunately, there was an upheaval in the industry at this point.  Ebooks were coming into play.  Print-on-demand was becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more a “thing”.  Traditional publishers were attempting to adjust and react to the new technology and new ideas … and one of their reactions was to take a hard look at their current products and do some major trimming.  One of the big items trimmed from nearly every traditional publisher list:  anthologies.  In general, they don’t make big money for the publishers, so they were on the chopping block.

So suddenly I had a driving urge to produce anthologies, with tons of ideas, but no interest from the traditional publishers.  I waited a few years, hoping that the traditional publishers would relax and bring the lines back, and during this time print-on-demand evolved even further and, most importantly, a new tool entered the market:  crowdfunding.

At this point, I had an epiphany.  I could create and publish the anthologies myself!  If I could crowdfund for the base funds (which also proved that there was interest in whatever the theme of that anthology was), I could then put the anthologies out in ebook and print-on-demand myself!

And thus the small press Zombies Need Brains was born.  Using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, I could raise the funds needed to pay the authors a professional rate, pay the artist a professional rate, pay professionals to design covers and interiors and ebooks, and get the anthologies I wanted out into the world.  It was genius!

I wasn’t the only one to have such an epiphany.  Crowdfunding changed everything, because now you didn’t have to rely on the big guys to provide the money.  With enough effort and work, and with enough support from fans, you could get the backing for the project yourself.  There was a surge in small presses … which produced a surge in new SF&F on the scene, from voices that you might not have ever heard from simply because of the dynamics of the traditional publishers.  Not just a deluge of more markets for short stories, but also new markets for novelettes and novellas and even full-length novels.

Crowdfunding opened up whole new markets for new writers—anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and more.

Zombies Need Brains is proud to be recognized by SFWA as a professional market and even has two stories up for this year’s WSFA Small Press Award.  We’re running a Kickstarter right now for three new anthologies:  PORTALS (stories of worlds connected to each other by a portal), TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED (stories about … whatever you decide “temporally deactivated” means), and ALTERNATE PEACE (alternate history stories where the divergence from our timeline comes from some kind of peaceful change).  We’ll be doing an open call for submissions as soon as the Kickstarter funds.  None of this would have been possible ten years ago, before the rise of crowdfunding and print-on-demand and ebooks.

If you’d like to see how much work goes into a Kickstarter, and maybe support ZNB latest effort, check out tinyurl.com/ZNBPortals.  You can also find out more details about the three anthology themes, in case one of them has sparked an idea for a story.  Once our Kickstarter funds, we’ll be putting up information on how YOU can submit a story and perhaps end up in one of our anthologies.

So put on those writerly thinking caps.  And then get writing!

Zombies Need Brains is a company created by epic fantasy author and OWW alum Joshua Palmatier.  ZNB is a small press that focuses on producing themed SF&F anthologies, funded by Kickstarters.  You can check out ZNB at www.zombiesneedbrains.com and their current Kickstarter at tinyurl.com/ZNBPortals.

 

On The Shelves

The Cobbler’s Boy by Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison

Brilliant, bookish Christopher Marlowe is fifteen years old and desperate to qualify for a scholarship to the King’s School in order to escape his brutal father.

But the only man who could have helped him has been murdered… and now the killers are looking for Kit.

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

 

Nine Gold Dots by C.K. Attner

Post-apocalyptic futures are not new terrain—and neither are quests to find the one scientist who can save them—but what struck me about “Nine Gold Dots” this month is how it demonstrates what’s at the core of a post-apocalyptic story: nuanced character work and worldbuilding that argues for better—or different—societies. However, the ending to this absorbing alternate future feels abrupt—cut short and overly light compared to the rest of the piece. So this month, I’d like to discuss the structural components that go into an effective ending, and how they’re rooted in the rest of a story.

A lot of thought has obviously gone into “Nine Gold Dots” and its sense of place: it’s founded on dense, layered worldbuilding and practical thought about what would work day-to-day in this scenario (the induction plate! Solar panels! Bikes! All so textural, and deeply logical). I would like to especially note that I really appreciated seeing a future that’s Salish and Chinese—one overall reflective of the actual current demographics of British Columbia—and the effort that went into setting the space’s emotional tone. Even with what’s at stake, and Edmonton’s repressed panic, there’s a softness to this particular end of the world that I found deeply welcoming as a reader: a core value that everyone involved here cares about the well-being of others first and foremost. It’s the gentleness of Station Eleven, but rooted in a much less white, high-culture, reified world, and that fundamental decency made this story a deeply satisfying place to spend mental time.

The characterization work also carries the narrative well, which is important for a piece centred around only three characters. I especially love Phoenicia’s grumpy, down-to-earth, thoroughly knowledgable practicality. She reads like someone very loving who has nonetheless had to grow up much too fast, and I developed an immense soft spot for her almost instantly. Even Lindy’s abrupt consent to the download has an emotional logic: she misses her old world and her old life, and wants one last grasp at it.

Where “Nine Gold Dots” wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders for me, yet, was in terms of pacing. The author’s notes do say this is on the whole done, but I’d like to suggest a little more structural refinement to address that issue.

“Nine Gold Dots” starts as a slow and cautious read for a few reasons: the density of the worldbuilding presents somewhat of an obstacle for reader immersion in the first several hundred words—readers need to situate themselves in this world, and there’s a learning curve to do early—and that’s exacerbated by the amount of invented language/jargon in this piece. Readers are spending the early pages trying to understand how the invented terms fit, but at the same time, trying to build a setting foundation on which to situate those concepts.

As it stands in the current draft, the effect of having that crunch of worldbuilding details packed into the first pages—when we’re also meeting characters, establishing conflict, and doing all the other work a story needs to do to explain what it is and why it’s relevant—is that “Nine Gold Dots” feels overall top-heavy, with its ending somewhat summarily abrupt. It’s less, I think, that the ending on its own terms is abrupt; but when balanced against the sheer amount of page space the early scenes take up—because they have the worldbuilding!—the comparison creates the effect of an ending unfinished, or just not quite enough. This robs the ending of impact, and leaves the reading experience feeling somewhat incomplete, or less satisfying than it could be.

There are a few strategies I’d like to suggest to rebalance this effect, ones that can be used separately or together.

The first: Reconsidering the necessity of each piece of jargon, or worldbuilding detail. I don’t personally think pruning alone will rebalance “Nine Gold Dots” without losing some of the richness of the world—which is already great!—but a quick pruning pass might be a good starting point. Which of the worldbuilding details pay off in some way, later? Which don’t lead anywhere? Snipping out dead ends or jargon that isn’t pulling its weight leaves one with overall less information to accommodate in a different way.

The second: Diffusing the worldbuilding detail through more narrative space to take the weight and density off the early scenes, and support it more broadly through the story. As a guide for this kind of work, consider pacing—and the density of detail—in a way that’s cyclical, like breath. Every piece of new, unfamiliar information—for example, that Edmonton is researching a viroid but also wants to link with the Thinker on his Kingston-class ship’s orlop deck—takes a little attentional oxygen out of the reader. And for every little bit of cognitive breath we take out, we have to give some space to fill those readerly lungs. That can mean couching it in more context or clearer context; it can mean some space between new concepts; it can mean a little time in familiar concepts to help clear those metaphorical lungs. But either way, finding methods to put air in our work is a great tool to have in the box to keep readers immersed even in information-dense settings.

The third: Adding a little more page weight to the ending. Ultimately, if the denouement feels a bit abrupt or slight, a small underline on the ending—and what readers are to take from it as the resolution that should satisfy them—can help balance from the other end. I can think of one particular starting point for this: There’s a line not entirely clearly drawn between the idea that teaching Edmonton to interface with the Thinker might take months, and that Lindy has months—maximum—to live. When those two ideas are connected, “Nine Gold Dots” says something profound about what we do with the time left to us, and a little more underlining on that point—just a one-sentence callback—could help boost the impact of the ending.

Ultimately, stabilizing pacing and structure can take a little experimentation: testing, taking words out, putting them back in, and checking to see if the story overall wobbles now or not. But with a little more work on moving the spotlight from the world, in the beginning, to a smoother pace that’s spread out throughout the whole piece, “Nine Gold Dots” can really click, I think, into a moving and humane piece.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

As She Ascends (Fallen Isles) by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegen Books September, 2018)

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Three Faces Of Holly, Chapter 2 by Anne Wrightwell

There’s a lot of intriguing stuff going on in this submission. Lots of mystery, lots of details that alert the protagonist to the fact that she’s not in her original reality. She spends much of her time telling us what’s different, and letting us know how she feels about it.

It’s clear the author has thought carefully about the worldbuilding, and paid attention to the little things. Some of them (like the oyster card) do repeat, but that’s easy to fix in revision. Work in other details to vary the effect, but to get the same message across: that this isn’t the world she expected to wake up in.

One thing I kept coming back to as I read was the ways in which the viewpoint keeps itself at center stage. Voice is really important in first-person narrative; Holly has a lot to say, and she makes sure to remind the reader that she’s there to say it.

While it’s a good thing to be unambiguous about who’s talking, it can also get in the way of the story. Frequent viewpoint-tagging is like that person in class who keeps jumping up and yelling, “Hey! Hey! Look at me! Pay attention to me!”

Words like sawfeltrealizednoticed, serve as filters between the reader and the story. They create the impression that they don’t trust either the reader’s perceptions or their own ability to make it clear who’s telling the story. This becomes particularly noticeable when the narrative adds qualifiers like seemed and sounded to the words and actions of characters who are not the narrator.

In revision, try removing all of these filter-words and see if the story still makes sense. Often it turns out that most or even all of them don’t need to be there.

The same applies to conversational-filler phrases (of course, for example, or now in the sense of Now, this was embarrassing) and parenthetical bits (I said brightly (or as brightly as I could manage with a hangover), for example). There’s a fine line between the cool-character voice and the trying-too-hard voice. Again, cutting them all can clarify where they’re superfluous, and where they can most effectively be added back in.

The techniques of internal monologue are another case of a little goes a long way. Rhetorical questions—I had to keep moving but which way to go? or What was happening?—may seem to the writer to show the character thinking actively about what to do, but what they actually do is stop the narrative while the character spins her mental wheels. Try removing the question and just show the character taking action, even if it’s indecisive: walking in one direction, then reversing, to show that she doesn’t know where to go. See if that’s more effective, more vivid and immediate.

Saying the same thing over and over, or saying it in different ways in consecutive sentences or throughout a paragraph, can have a similar effect. Here’s an example:

It would have been so easy to slump back in my seat and doze but I had to be vigilant to make sure that I got off at the right stop. I really couldn’t face getting off at the wrong stop and having to retrace my steps, the way I felt.

Note the passive phrases—would have beenhad to be—and the repetition of stop, and the viewpoint tag at the end. These rhetorical bits put a wall of words between the reader and what’s happening. Changing to more active phrasing and removing the repetitions and the tag makes for tighter prose and a more immediate experience. Something like this:

I didn’t dare slump back in my seat and doze, in case I got off at the wrong stop and had to retrace my steps.

See what I did there? Same concepts, same key words, but shorter and pointier. Story moves forward, and we’re clear on how she feels about it.

Paring and pruning like this throughout will make the line of the narrative more distinct, bring out the most important details, and sharpen Holly’s voice and perspective. Less, as they say, is more. Just the right choice of words, just the right selection of actions and reactions, will make the story and the character pop, and bring out both Holly’s natural sassy wit and her mounting confusion.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Songs Of Transience And Permanence by Hannah Hulbert

I gravitated toward this submission because it pinged two of my Favorites buttons: magic based on music, and the Anglo-Saxon era. I am not an expert in music, but I agree with the Author’s Note that the story should get a beta read from someone who is. I can even offer Recommended Reading in the form of a historical fantasy series by an author whose knowledge of music is deep and wide: T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas. There’s a novel coming in early 2019, but in the meantime the novellas are nice and short and might provide inspiration.

As for the story itself, there are some good things going on. Music has always been used to manipulate emotions; it’s a natural extension of this to create a magical system, and a set of magic users, who wield the power of music for political purposes. It’s a nice wrinkle to tell the story of a naive young musician who tries to foment revolution through a song–and discovers that he’s not only far from the first to do so, his attempt backfires. In a way he gets what he wanted, but it’s not at all what he expected.

That’s a nice twist. So is the setting, which isn’t a common one in fantasy these days. Anglo-Saxon culture was steeped in music and song. It’s believable that adepts might work powerful magic with it.

What I’d like to focus on here is one of the author’s questions, the one about names. Names have power. In fantasy, and especially in secondary-world fantasy, they’re an essential part of the worldbuilding.

Purely coincidentally, after I had chosen this submission for the music and the setting, one of my fellow writers on Twitter put up a thread about naming in fantasy: https://twitter.com/adribbleofink/status/1031969208576368640 . The thread is mostly about cultural appropriation, but it’s also about why names are important, and why it’s important to be fully conscious of what those names mean. Even with the best of intentions, if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we can run into trouble.

Let me be quick to add that I don’t see anything appropriative about the story I’m reading here. It respects the sources, and it wants to create a cultural ambience through the use of names and terms in Anglo-Saxon. The question is about whether those names are a distraction.

My direct answer is that some of them are. Those that use special characters are confusing to the modern eye, and if the reader doesn’t know how to pronounce them, they get in the way. For myself, I would normalize the cyning/king’s name to AElfraed, which is still more authentic than not, but less likely to throw the reader’s browser into paroxysms. Mine, for example, gave me ÆlfrÇ£d.

My less direct answer has to do with the names of the main characters. Regina is a Latin name, but we aren’t told why she’s called that. Is she descended from Roman Britons? Does she come from Italy or one of the Roman provinces across the Channel?

Even if she is, her name still needs some basis in the world and the story. It’s actually a title, and tends to be applied to the Virgin Mary as Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. It’s not uncommon in the modern world—it’s my mother’s name, in fact. But in the age of Alfred, it stands out.

The protagonist’s name presents a similar set of issues.The prose in general aims toward high fantasy, but Nicky’s name drops us down into a nickname with a modern flavor. It’s usually short for Nicholas, which is a form of the Greek name Nikolaos. As with Regina, it makes me ask if he comes from somewhere other than the land of the Angles and the Saxons. Or if he is a native Saxon, and he’s been given a saint’s name (as Regina has been given a title of the Virgin Mary), that points to a Christian presence. But we don’t see it in the story–and we should; it was a major influence on the whole culture, from top to bottom.

As a reader, I want to know why the author chose those particular names in a story that is so careful otherwise to describe the world and its people in Anglo-Saxon terms. Why not give these two characters Anglo-Saxon names? What is the reasoning behind the choice? How does the worldbuilding support it? What is its significance within the setting?

It’s perfectly possible to use those names in a story set in the age of Alfred, but as a reader, I want to understand why. The story is about these characters; they’re its focus. Their names should speak to the core of who and what they are–and tell us a great deal about the world in which they live.

–Judith Tarr