31 December 2007

writing on reading: Time's Child and The Accidental Time Machine

Or, what I read on my Christmas Vacation. :)
I thought I'd follow Dave's lead and give you my 2 cents on some books I've read recently. It may give you Electric Spec writers an idea of what kinds of stuff this editor likes (and doesn't). So, for your reading pleasure, reviews of 2 recent time travel books:

Time's Child by Rebecca Ore
In plague-aftermath 2300 The Archivists extract people from the past to study, including a Da Vinci groupie, a teen-aged Viking, and a 2006-era hacker. Needless to say, the snatched people don't appreciate being confined and studied and break free. Chaos ensues as they develop their own time machines and start bringing historical people to the 2300-present.

I found the prose to be very well done. The plotting was quite good, with alternate futures trying to control the 2300-era folks. I also found the philosophical implications of how much an era/culture shapes a person to be very intriguing. For example, can a Viking build a time machine or is he trapped in the paradigm of his youth? What does it mean to be human? Are people static or constantly changing?

Regarding constructive criticism: the author has three pov characters which she utilizes seemingly at random, which is slightly confusing. The ending also could have been more dramatic.

Overall, I really enjoyed this.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
As the title implies, the protagonist, a physics grad student, accidentally builds a time machine. As you might guess, he starts traveling--into the future. Adventures ensue.

Haldeman's prose is wonderful, as usual, and I really appreciated the plausibility of the physics.

Unfortunately, I can only surmise this is intended as an homage to H.G. Wells The Time Machine, because the plot is entirely predictable.

Still, Haldeman's writing is so nice, I enjoyed this.

What good books have you read lately? :)

30 December 2007

Writing on Reading: Julian May

Juilan May is an accomplished writer of both science fiction and fantasy, but I confess that Conqueror's Moon is the first book I've read by her. Conqueror's Moon is book one of the Boreal Moon trilogy, and it fits the mold of many epic fantasies that are on the market today. The prose is smooth and the world is built in a detailed and logical way. The plot is straightforward, revolving around a prince's surprise attack on a neighboring kingdom.


While Conqueror's Moon will be a perfectly satisfactory read for most fantasy readers, it has flaws. The first chapter is written in first person, from the POV of one of the primary protagonists. The huge and poorly disguised info dump in this first chapter made me want to stop reading. The rest of the book is written in third person limited. The change in POVs bothered me because the first chapter plants in the reader's mind that the rest of the book was "written" by the first person POV character, but the book contains numerous thoughts and actions that the "writer" could not have known. Furthermore, the first person POV at the beginning takes away tension later because we know the POV character will survive the life-threatening situations he faces.



A second flaw revolves around the morality of the characters. I do not think that fantasies have to be a battle between "good" versus "evil" characters (i.e. I love George R.R. Martin's "grey" characters). On the other hand, I don't like it when an author just assumes you are going to hope that the protagonist achieves his goals simply because he's the protagonist. In Conqueror's Moon, the prince's cause was not just and his personal morals were questionable at best. The prince is unwilling to trust his most loyal servants, plots against his father, has an extra-material affair, and divorces is pregnant wife for political reasons.  In contrast, the "bad guys", while flawed, did not seem at all deserving of the prince's wrath. As a result, the "climatic" battle scene between the prince's forces and his enemies looses its punch because it does not seem important that the prince prevail. In fact, I became increasingly tempted to root for the "bad guys."



Finally, the challenges faced by the protagonists were too easily overcome. The prince formulated a plan, then the plan was executed as expected. The plot was essentially linear, with few unexpected twists or setbacks.



Despite its flaws, Conqueror's Moon is an entertaining read, and it shows that May is a talented writer. Have any of you read May's science fiction? If so, how it does it compare to her fantasy writing?

27 December 2007

Writing on Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude

What do you call a novel that has no central protagonist, an omniscient POV, and a rambling plot? In the case of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, you call it a masterpiece.  Solitude has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in college. Given my love for the fantasy genre, its probably not surprising that the way Garcia Marquez infuses his world with magic is one aspect of his work that I love. However, two elements really make his work stand out: his voice and the uniqueness of his characters. To me, Garcia Marquez's is like a gifted storyteller sitting by the campfire. Humor and wisdom underscore every moment, brining a unique perceptive to the world. Here's one small example: "Almost pulverized at the time by the decrepitude of death, Pudencio Aguliar would come twice a day to chat with him. They talked about fighting cocks. They promised each other to set up a breeding farm for magnificent birds, not so much to enjoy their victories, which they would not need then, as to have something to do on the tedious Sundays of death." Wow!

His characters are like none others that I've seen, ranging from the grandfather who lives out most of his twilight years tied to a tree to a girl with bad habit of eating whitewash and dirt who arrives mysteriously with a bag containing her parents' bones. 

The only criticism I have for Solitude is that it is almost too much of a good thing. With so many stories, characters, and events crammed into one book, it is hard to get through without putting it down for awhile. In other words, it is kind of like trying to eat a whole carton of Chunky Monkey at once. However, if you keep it on your nightstand and consume it a bite at a time, you'll be nicely rewarded.

By the way, if you are wondering where the fantasy and science fiction reviews are, stay tuned. 

24 December 2007

conflict

For some reason in this holiday season, surrounded by relatives, my mind is turning to conflict. :)
As writers, we are told we must have a conflict in our stories. But what is conflict? I took a class a while back (and blogged about it) in which conflict was defined as a person obstructing the protagonist's goals. Forces of nature, catastrophes, etc. were NOT considered worthy conflicts. Older and wiser(?) now, I have to say I disagree. IMHO, conflict is any person, force, neurosis, insert-your-idea-here that opposes the protagonist. I know many writers would disagree with me, including some in my critique group.

What do you think?

Send Electric Spec your conflict-laden stories. :)

21 December 2007

From all of us at Electric Spec,
to you, our readers and writers:


Have a wonderful Holiday
Season and the happiest of
New Years.


20 December 2007

correspondence

How do I approach this nicely?

Don't reply to a rejection. It's unprofessional and helps no one--least of all you. Replies often get lost in the process of sorting so the chances the original editor will see it are slim. If you have a legitimate question, such as querying a story idea or clarification on our guidelines or asking us what we're looking for, this blog would be an excellent place to ask us.

And especially, especially don't send us a snotty response to a rejection. Now, I am terrible with names, so I won't remember you if you sent us a snotty reply. (I can't speak for my fellow editors--Lesley seems to have one of those steel-trap minds, and Dave is a lawyer--take what significance from that as you will.) Also, our office is the Internet and various restaurants in Boulder, so we don't have a "black-balled" bulletin board. However, my experience is that a surly attitude often matches sub-par writing, so if you're angry with an editor, you might take a fresh look at your own writing. Might you instead be angry with yourself? Next to parenting, writing is the most difficult endeavour I've ever embarked upon, so you're not alone in your frustration.

That's not to say we don't reject wonderful writing. We do, often. I see good stories that are just not right for Electric Spec, and unfortunately my time is too limited to mention it during reading sessions. And, since I now seem to have reliable Internet service for the first time in months, I will be reading in the next few days! (In other words, any delays are mine, and not my illustrious fellow editors.)

Happy Holidays!

19 December 2007

public likes science

Have you heard? Apparently there's a new wave sweeping the U.S. called Science Cafes. Wired Magazine says Science Caf├ęs Tap Nation's Fascination With Research and Discoveries. What does that have to do with speculative fiction writing, you ask? It means there is an audience for science fiction stories! Send us yours!

In other news, I'm sorry to say, Congress does not like science. Read more about it at Science: A Budget Too Small. Now there are some folks who need to read more science fiction!

17 December 2007

who's your protag?

In a couple of submissions to Electric Spec recently, I think the authors missed the boat regarding their protagonist. The so-called protagonists are the buddy or sidekick of the person doing all the action. Said sidekick then describes what happens for the reader. The Great Gatsby notwithstanding, this generally doesn't work. It removes the reader from the action. One of the fabulous things about fiction is it enables the reader to become someone else. Why would we want to be the sidekick rather than the hero?

Please keep sending those stories in! Thanks!

14 December 2007

I'm repeating myself

I've been reading quite a few story submissions lately and find myself wanting to tell the authors things I've already blogged about. I really wish we had the time to give critiques to our story-submitters, but we don't. So, I'm going to repeat myself--sorry.
Authors, please do give me (my fellow editors may disagree with some of this):
  • an original idea
  • a plot arc--something must happen externally and/or internally (note the easiest plot arc is overcoming a conflict)
  • stuff that makes sense and is internally consistent
  • a fully-developed world, including setting the scene (note: only give us the backstory we need)
  • a sympathetic, or at least interesting, protagonist that does something
  • dialog

Authors, please look at your stuff with an objective eye. Obviously, you can write a fabulous story without including all the above stuff, e.g. without any dialog, but it is really difficult, IMHO. As for the plot arc, that is sort of a genre prejudice, certainly literary fiction is rife with slice-of-life stories in which very little happens.

Keep sending Electric Spec your stories! We appreciate your submissions.

13 December 2007

Writing on Reading: Coben and Iles

Welcome back to another episode of writing on reading. Today, we're going to talk about domestic thrillers, specifically Twenty Four Hours by Greg Iles and Just One Look by Harlan Coben.  Both Iles and Coben are accomplished thriller authors, and it was interesting to see the many ways in which these books were alike. Both involve suburban, middle to upper class families with children, both have at least one major POV character that is a housewife, and both involve threats made (and, to some extent, carried out) by bad guys motivated by revenge. In fact, the similarities in these books are probably what made the both effective. Both books held my interest from beginning to end and, at times, were hard to put down. Although none of the protagonists in these books were particularly memorable, they were likable and believable enough so that I cared about what happened to them. In addition, their obstacles were sufficiently challenging that there was some doubt about whether (or how) the protagonists would prevail in the end.


With so many similarities, is it possible to judge one better than the other? Yup. Twenty Four Hours was the better book for a couple of reasons. One, the main baddie was a bit more believable. It's  possible that there might be a smart criminal out there who would develop the perfect (yet simple) plan for kidnap-for-ransom. In contrast, the baddie in Just One Look knew all these pressure point techniques and had this sociopathic personally that made him seem unrealistic. Two, Just One Look was more of a mystery/thriller, with the mystery element being a bit convoluted and implausible.  Some people may like this element, but I thought the plot of Twenty Four Hours was more clean, with the book ending once the protagonists were no longer in peril.

Overall, these are both good thrillers and worth looking at if you are studying how to create tension in your writing.

sad news from Terry Pratchett

I know the Electric Spec editors, readers and authors are/were very sorry to hear Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. Read his open letter. We're praying/pulling/hoping for you, Terry!

10 December 2007

Writing on Reading: Turow and Grisham

I was inspired by an earlier post by Lesley to start posting about what I've been reading. The first two books I wanted to mention are legal thrillers: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and The Testament by John Grisham. Presumed Innocent is a reread of one of my favorite books. Turow pulls off an amazing feat--writing in first person POV, hiding something important from the reader, and NOT making the reader feel cheated by the narrator. Also, all of the characters in the book feel very real and deep, especially the huge range of emotions experienced by the protagonist. My only criticism of Presumed Innocent is that Turow gets carried away in certain places with backstory on certain characters and information that is not critical to the plot. In a few places, I found myself skimming paragraphs of exposition so I could get back to the good stuff.

In stark contrast to Presumed Innocent, Grisham's The Testament is, well, awful. This book starts off in first person POV, written by a character who dies at the end of the chapter. IMHO, killing off your first person POV character is a big no-no. Grisham then introduces several other POV characters (now in third person POV), none of whom are the protagonist. We finally meet the protagonist about fifty pages into the book. The POV character, a recovering alcoholic, seems to get pushed this way and that by the other characters in the book. His own goals seems to change on an almost daily basis, and his main internal conflict (alcoholism) is resolved by a religious conversion that comes from left field. In fact, whole book felt self-righteously preachy to me, as if I were being repeatedly bashed over the head with Grisham's anti-materialism, pro-Christian message. I went ahead and finished the book, hoping to find the exciting plot twist at the end that Grisham is famous for. It never came.

Presumed Innocent was Turow's first novel (not counting 1L, about his days at Harvard Law) and I could easily see why it was such a success. Grisham's career took off after his second novel, The Firm, which was also very good. I'm sure The Testament sold well because it had Grisham's name on the cover, but I wonder if Grisham (or his agent or editors) knew it wasn't quite up to snuff. Perhaps Grisham was more concerned about getting out his religious message than writing a well crafted novel, or maybe he was writing to a deadline and he forced this one out. Whatever the case, I'm going to try to read the "breakout" novels of popular authors and be weary of later ones that promise a lot but deliver very little.

winter issue deadline posted

I just posted on Electric Spec the deadline for submissions for the February 28, 2008 issue is January 4, 2008. You've got about a month to send in your stories for that issue. Good luck!

07 December 2007

advanced techniques

Agent Nathan wrote something interesting in his blog yesterday: "descriptions of facial expressions really only thinly veiled ways of telling the reader what emotion the character is feeling. Unique gestures, dialogue and actions tend to be much more interesting ways of describing the way someone is feeling and go further toward creating interesting characters. Emotions and facial expressions are universal -- how people deal with emotions and express those emotions are unique."

To be honest, I'm pretty happy if authors submitting to Electric Spec do describe facial expressions, rather than actually telling, e.g. "The Elf Queen was sad." But Agent Nathan is correct--this is only one step removed from telling.
Good writers are constantly learning and improving their work. Can you convey emotion without telling and without facial expressions? Show us your unique characters and their emotions!

06 December 2007

The Black Moment

Bernita explores an aspect of writing nearly every day on her blog--well worth reading. Today it is the Black Moment. I realized when I come away from a story unsatisfied, it is often because the author never pushed the protag into the Black Moment. This is the moment when all seems lost, or to bastardize what David told me once in reference to the ending of one of my books:

He needs to lose his sword, crawl through the mud in a violent thunderstorm, everyone dead or dying around him! He has to be covered in blood and devoid of all hope. Light should be cracking through the pearly gates; his ancestors must be waving from the tunnel of white light. He must be so weakened that the antagonist not only holds all the cards (and said sword), but has plenty of time to decide how to play them. And then, still, after all that, the protag must prevail--mostly alone.


Short stories are not immune from this good advice. Some stories are not so physical, but what violence are you wreaking upon your protag's soul? Has he undergone a trial that will change him, and maybe the world around him, forever? Has he sacrificed? Has he fought against all odds for what he believes, or what you want him to believe?

Once you get to know your protag well, the Black Moment is fairly easy to construct. Simply take away what he wants most in life, and make him fight like hell to get it back.

Robots R Us?

Okay, as a huge Asimov fan, I can't resist... Did you all know Toyota has a robot that can play the violin? Moreover, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe recently said robotics will be a core business for the company in coming years. And the company hopes to put what it calls "partner robots" to real use by 2010, he said. "We want to create robots that are useful for people in everyday life," he told reporters at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo.

Apparently, Japan is really pushing robotics.

Honda has also been working on robots. They have one called ...wait for it...Asimo — which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility and is play on the Japanese word for "legs". Awesome! Read more at
USA Today.

Now, what did I do with all those Three Laws stories...?

By the way, please don't send us robot stories featuring robot love, robot-human sex, and/or robot murder (unless it's done really, really well).

backstory

Authors, watch out for backstory in your short stories. What do I mean by backstory? I mean: a narrative providing a history or background context. It's awesome if you know the entire backstory of your characters and their friends and family, but as a reader, I only want to read what's relevant to the story.
Keep sending those stories to ElectricSpec!

03 December 2007

R.I.P paper books?

There's been some hullabaloo in the blogosphere about the inevitable end of paper books, e.g. www.michaelhyatt.com. What do you think? Will it happen? Will paper books be a historical curiosity some day? As an editor of an all-electronic 'zine, I have mixed feelings about this.
What happens when the EMP knocks out all technology?
Who updates ALL the old documents to ever-changing software every day/month/year? And what happens if they don't and we lose all knowledge of the past?
Wow! There are a lot of good speculative fiction story ideas related to this!
Insert your idea here. :)