28 September 2008

David's Comments On the Selection Process

By now our finalists have gotten the good or bad news about their stories. Since Bets and Lesley have given their take on all this, I thought I'd better chime in as well. It's fairly easy to make generalizations about how bad or mediocre stories can be improved (see Bet's and Gremlin's prior posts), but it's harder for higher quality stories. Lesley is right that plot has a lot to do with it; many stories are very well written but the plot is too common or predictable. In other cases, the world is well crafted, but just does not feel original enough. (This is especially true in fantasy. We've been having a harder time finding fantasy stories that we are truly taken with, mostly because the worlds seem too trope.) Some stories just don't hold together on the second or third read. If a story has a plot element or a character action that does not make sense, that's usually something we can't (or don't want to) fix in the editorial process.

So what do all three of us editors like most? Character-driven stories that pull you with with an interesting word and proceed in a sensible, but perhaps not predictable, way with an ending that is satisfying. If you have one of those, please send it our way!

25 September 2008

more comments on our selection process

Here's another editor's opinion...
I agree with Betsy: Wow! We had a lot of great stories this time. In fact, we had a record number of 'hold for voting' stories this issue. Kudos to you authors! Thank you to everyone that submitted.
It's a given that all the stories that made it to hold-for-voting were written by competent writers with a firm grasp of spelling and the rules of grammar.

I also agree with Betsy that "Just the right amount of information" is good. IMHO about 99% of the stories we get are too long. I freely admit early drafts of stories I write are also too long, but I've learned to go through at the end and cut, cut, cut.

I have deciphered the number one reason I pick a story for Electric Spec is originality. I want to read about an idea I've never heard of, or even imagined, before.
What does this mean for you, the author?
It means a mean man/monster/alien/ghost/vampire/werewolf that kills his wife/girlfriend/etc. is a tough sell unless it has an original twist.
It means a story with the big reveal that the protagonist is a monster/alien/ghost/vampire/werewolf is a tough sell unless it has an original twist.
It means the prince/knight/soldier/etc. that saves a maiden/princess/plucky thief/etc. and defeats the demon/monster/dragon/evil warlock/etc. on a quest is a tough sell unless it has an original twist.
I think you get the idea.
It doesn't mean that unoriginal stories are bad, it just means they aren't for me. Of course I don't pick the stories by myself. All the editors get together and hash it out, so we all have a say.

We hope to have our selections for the Oct. 31 issue by the end of this week and we will inform authors soon after.
Thanks again for submitting!

24 September 2008

Making the Cut

Wow. Just wow. So many great stories, such a small budget. Y'all made this round really tough for your editorial staff here at ESpec. My eyes are spinning from sheer volume; my head is reeling from the quality. Tomorrow night the Electric Spec staff meets to drink discuss the new issue, coming to your monitors on HALLOWEEN.

What are some qualities of the stories in our Hold File? Here are some comments culled from my own notes:

Creative world. Creative doesn't necessarily mean funny-named critters and odd-looking foliage. Creative, when I think about world-building, means fleshed-out, that I have a sense of wholeness, of more than I can see in your story. Truly excellent world-building even spurs plot and characterization. Customs should make sense within the larger framework. Politics, economics, and culture, down to slang and phrasing, should affect and inform your characters' actions. You can even use similes to give me more information about your world. Closely linked is deftly-handled world building. This means no telling, no explaining. The characters behave as they do because it's what they know. They are so much a part of their world that I can't picture them anywhere else.

Just the right amount of information. Whew! Did we ever get some loooong stories for this issue. The short form is a "bite," not the whole pie.
Great tension. Nothing holds me rapt like tension. Every sentence should deepen it, draw the reader further in, locking them into the character's inevitable choices and fate. A reader (me) should ask with every scene: will he or won't he? Tension stems from a good story question and proper pacing. (No waxing poetic during sword fights!)

Intriguing, well developed foe. Let's hear it for bad guys--the most neglected character in poorly written fiction. But hey! Antagonists are people, too. They aren't just a rock to climb over; they're the whole reason your protag got into this mess in the first place. The better the antagonist, the better the conflict.

Writing is very clean. Clear, strong language. Solid word choice and sentence structure. (When in doubt: subject, verb, object.) No passive voice, no misused words, few grammar and punctuation flaws. No adverbs when a strong verb would do. No POV glitches. Don't tell it when you could show it just as well.

Voice matched plot and characters perfectly. Dave said something to me last night that stuck with me all the way until today. Sophisticated writers think about how to match voice to plot and characters. If your character is a sheepherder from the Shire who can't read, don't use big words in his POV.

Atmospheric. This is the most difficult to explain, but the most fun to read. If it's a story that takes us into the dark places of someone's soul, then keep the lights low. Suggest atmosphere with props and metaphor and voice.

It's a lot, I know, but if they can do it, so can you!

22 September 2008

Writing on Reading: A Princess of Roumania

Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania got a lot of critical acclaim when it came out a couple years ago, and I can see why. It's certainly different that most fantasy novels out there, taking lots of tropes and turning them on their head. Park creates a unique world with memorable characters. I really enjoyed the way he spent time developing one of antagonists. When "evil" POV characters try to justify their own actions in believable and non-traditional ways--and even experience regret, denial, and self-doubt--that's good stuff. Park also does some interesting things with magic. The scope and nature of magic is never completely explained, but it works in this case. An aura of mystery and confusion that surrounds magic seems realistic, leaving us with the feeling that we might have if we directly experienced magic ourselves. One other positive is that the book contains a twist I never saw coming, which is always fun.

All of the above makes Princess worth reading, but I don't think I put it my list of top fantasy novels. Although I enjoyed and was interested in the characters, I never connected with them enough to feel truly absorbed in the book. I think this was in part because of Park's use of multiple POVs throughout the book. Just as I felt myself pulling more for one character, Park would switch POV on me, drawing me away. The other flaw for me was that the plot didn't move quite quickly enough. It seemed like Park kept giving the reader a promise that great things were about to happen, but then he under-delivered. The book ended with a definable climax, but not enough of one for my taste.

18 September 2008

Personal Rejections

I'd like to address the idea of personalized rejections. Anything to put off writing a synopsis, right? Which leads me to my point.

The editorial staff are all working writers, as well as holding down other jobs, attending professional events, managing families, etc. Boo hoo, everyone's busy. But limited time isn't the only reason we don't offer many comments on stories from our slush. (OK, it might be Dave's because he really is busy, man.)

ElectricSpec is a business, not a school. Yes, I often know exactly what the problems are in a story, and I could jot suggestions back to the writer. Yes, it might only take five minutes per story. But we don't accept redux on stories. In three years, we've learned it just doesn't work for us. So, this being a business, and a competitive one at that, why should I spend ElectricSpec's time critiquing a bunch of stories which are going to end up at another magazine? ElectricSpec not going to benefit, and my magazine must be my primary concern.

But isn't part of our mission to support beginning writers? It is. And we do. We seek out writers who really need that interview. We write this blog so we can address lots of folks at once. We love to buy first sales from writers, and I think you'll notice we have, a lot. And once upon a time, we did offer more suggestions via rejections. Unfortunately...

Our advice is often not well-recieved. There really is nothing like offering advice and having a writer shoot a hostile email back. There are a thousand writers out there who aren't ready to recieve critique, unfortunately. Sure, a few bad dudes ruined it for everyone. But not really, because...

I help writers in other capacities. Having been on the recieving end, to me being a writer is as much about paying it forward as it is writing. So, I speak at conferences, targeting beginning writers. Just this past weekend, I offered a 30 page critique as a conference prize. I've critiqued at critters and crapmeter. I write two blogs and do my best to leave helpful comments around the Web. I'm a member of two professional organizations, a full-time critique group, and have offered countless free critiques online and in person. I truly believe in the value of critique. But, I choose not to do this through ElectricSpec because here...

I'm an editor, not a critique partner. When I get your story, I assume it's finished. That's a fair assumption because the stories we buy certainly are.

If you look around hard enough, you'll find my presence on the web. If you engage me, I think you'll find I'll come out from behind my editor's desk, quite friendly and ready to help. And within the confines of the blog, we're always happy to answer questions, even specific questions. So just try us. And do your best to ignore Gremlin. He's a pain, but he gives us candy, so we keep him around.

17 September 2008

Story Problems that Make Me Want to Smear Gooey Stuff All Over My Face

We gremlins tend to smear green, gooey stuff all over ourselves when we are pissed off. We also bite, so it's wise to steer clear of us when we're having a bad day. I've had a few goo-worthy moments lately reading stories in the Electric Spec slush. It makes me mad when a story with a strong plot or interesting characters ends up in the reject pile. If only those authors knew how close they were. If only they'd fix a few problems. On the off chance someone's willing to take the Grem's advice, here a handy list.

Editorial Gremlin's Seven Green Goo Rules 

  1. Figure out who your protagonist is and make me care about him/her/it.
  2. Make sure there is conflict. Bonus points if you make things really horrible for the person in #1 above.
  3. Cut the crap. Write three drafts of your story, making it shorter each time. Send me the short one.
  4. If there's no dialogue on the first page of the story, you better have a good reason.
  5. Lengthy descriptions of a fantasy world make me yawn. I fall dead asleep when they are in the first two or more paragraphs of the story. (The same rule applies to backstory).
  6. If you are going to choose only 1 physical trait to describe a character, don't choose hair or eye color. 
  7. Get paid for a payoff. Give me an ending that brings the story together or rams the point home, and I'll try to get those idiot Electric Spec editors to buy it. 

15 September 2008

Fall Issue Submission Deadline Today!

Today at midnight is the deadline for Electric Spec to consider stories for our Fall issue, which comes out on Halloween. Stories submitted after that will be considered for our winter issue.

From what I've seen so far, the competition for the 6-7 spots in our Fall issue will be tough. We've already held 27 stories for voting, which is above average. I have not been though all those stories yet, but I know I put in a few that looked very promising. 

I didn't specifically keep track of the total number of submissions for this issue, but a fair guess would be 250 to 300 stories. So remember authors, don't get discouraged by rejections. Getting a story published in a quality magazine is really, really tough. Not only do you have to write a great story, but you also need beat out all the other great stories that other authors have submitted. Ultimately it will boil down to editors' subjective tastes and what the magazine needs for a particular issue.

12 September 2008

The Art of the Slow Reveal

Check out Elizabeth Bear's new story over at Tor. It's a great story for a number of reasons, one of which is how she handles the slow reveal. I love fantasy stories where the fantasy (or science fiction element) isn't immediately obvious, but then you realize it was there from almost the very beginning. This story, in fact, has two reveals that work together really well. Bear also captures the voice and vocabulary of the music industry, making the story ring true. It's so different from her Nebula award-winning Tideline, proving she's one of the most versatile authors in genre fiction right now. What do you think of the story? I'd love to see your comments.

p.s. One more plug for Bear. I know from personal experience that she's very down to earth. She was kind enough to provide encouragement and constructive criticism on a story I submitted to Ideomancer.

11 September 2008

Slamming F & SF

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine is popular with genre writers for a lot of reasons: it has a good circulation, pays pro rates for stories, and has the fastest slush turn-around time in the biz. I admire F & SF for all of those reasons. I confess that I'm a frequent submitter (aka recipient of rejections) from the magazine, but I'm a former subscriber. Why? Although I found many high quality stories in the magazine, very few of them truly grabbed me. I found issues piling up in my in-box because I wasn't quite willing to put down whatever it was I was reading that did grab me. Also, I found many more stories in free web-based magazines that were, IMHO, better.

I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Recently, F & SF has been slammed in the blogosphere. Check it out at Wet Asphalt  and Asking the Wrong Questions.

10 September 2008

What say again?

I'm caught up with my slush. For now. It's a fleeting thing.

I had an odd run of submissions in which I had trouble figuring out what the story was about. Ambiguity is not something we see too much of around here. In fact, we see plots more along the lines of the adopted teenaged shepard boy (aka: long lost prince/mage/warrior of the realm) sent on a quest by a mysterious magician. Ok, not that bad, but you get my meaning.

Often the set-up was all there, but then the story took a left turn at Albuquerque. I tried to think about why this was and some points came to mind:

The author fell in love with his own voice.
I see this most often in first person, though I've seen a few thirds lately. When your critique group says Great line, but what does it mean? it's not a rhetorical question.

The author didn't know what s/he was trying to say.
What is the point? A note: some stories are meant to be lighthearted fare, but I don't think you'll see much fluff in ElectricSpec. Even our humor stories make a point. Every story should have at least one theme, no matter how simple or cliche. Interwoven themes, we like even better.

The story wasn't fleshed out. (And it wasn't even about zombies.)
Push your plot and characters for all their worth. Find ways to connect every dot, and make sure there's more than two.

Tread only the paths that lead to the point you're trying to make.
All aspects of the story should be laser-focused on your theme (see above).

Even what you don't say should make a point.
The best way I can illustrate this is with an example from real life. Picture a husband and wife. The husband wants to have a nap. The wife wants him to clean the garage. ** But she says nothing. The husband has the nap. Even an non-action can lend meaning to your theme and plot. Does she love him, knows how he loves his naps, so she tolerates it happily? Is he crabby enough to beat her for saying something? Or is her silence a statement--usually she complains, but now she's given up on him?

All this takes some doing, I realize. But most stories are not written in a day--most saleable stories, anyway. Most stories take some thought and agony and blood. Almost every writer I know with sales under their belts have stories that took months or even years to perfect. Give yourself the time to realize what you're trying to say, and let your characters show us.

**thanks, honey, for cleaning the garage on Sunday. : )

08 September 2008

How to Write Horrible Horror

I've managed to hack into the Electric Spec slush pile, and I've seen a lot of horror stories in there. Being a Gremlin, I love horror stories, and even those wussy Electric Spec editors usually include at least one horror/macabre story in each issue. They claim they may put even more in the next issue, which comes out on Halloween.

I'm not impressed with some of the slush horror I've seen. Maybe 'cause it's e-z to write bad horror. Just write a story with lots of people getting killed by someone or something bad. Yawn. If the story really sucks, I end up looking forward to the protagonist getting put out of his/her misery. 

So, what are the keys to good horror? Well, ya gotta establish an interesting protagonist. The story can't be about horror; it has to be about an interesting character experiencing horror.  A well-developed character can make even the most trope horror plots (i.e. murderer on the loose, monster attacking stranded group, angry ghost seeking revenge, etc) interesting. Even better, avoid trope horror plots altogether. Erase all those bad horror movies you saw as a teenager while trying to round the bases with your date and start from scratch. 

If you submit a story that manages to do both of these, I'll make those Electric Spec editors publish it by biting their noses until they agree.

04 September 2008

some advice for authors...

We've been furiously going through our in-boxes at Electric Spec, getting ready for the next issue. I've read QUITE a few stories lately that were very low on dialog and quite high on 'telling'. I was going to blog that this is generally a bad idea until I read "Bambi Steaks" by Richard A. Lovett (not in our submissions in-box:) ). This story is also low on dialog and high on 'telling', but it works. Why? Its about several things at once including what it means to be a man, technology that enables humans to switch bodies, and an alternate-future filled with U.S. red-states/blue-states civil war(s). It also has a really nice voice. The best thing about it though is the author lets the reader figure out the point of the story; the protagonist doesn't even get it! Very nice!

So, authors, how can you make your stories about more than one thing? Think about it, implement it, and send us your masterpieces! :)

02 September 2008

Writing on Reading: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

It's been a while since I've read a novel that's had me hooked from beginning to end, but Little Brother by Cory Doctorow did just that. Little Brother is being marketed as a "young adult" or "teen" book. I suppose I can see why. The protagonist is a high school techno-geek, the book is shorter than standard genre fare, and the message of the book is--well--less than subtle. Even so, the book is worth a read even if you're an old geezer nearing 40 like me. Doctorow does a great job using a first person POV to build sympathy for the protagonist, and he creates a believable near-future world that overreacts to the threat of terrorism. He very deftly covers all the hot button issues of today: the Patriot Act, biased journalism, Guantanamo Bay, even waterboarding. As you might expect from Doctorow if you've read his columns in Locus, he has lots of interesting information and ideas about about technology and the web. 

I image this book will end up pissing a few people off; Doctorow sure doesn't pull any punches about where he thinks the United States is going if it stays on its current path. On the other hand, as Doctorow points out in Little Brother, Allen Ginsberg pissed lots of people off when he published Howl.