29 July 2009

Writing on Reading: Conspiracies: A Repairman Jack Novel

Conspiracies is the second book in the "Repairman Jack" series of novels by F. Paul Wilson. I confess I had not read The Tomb, which is the first book in the series. It was one of those situations where I was at the library, I needed a book, I had little time, and Conspiracies was available. Even not knowing the full backstory, I was impressed with the novel. It is one of those difficult to classify genre novels--not sci-fi or fantasy, if you ask the publishers. Some call it horror or a "paranormal thriller." The book takes place in our world, but has elements that don't exist in our world. However, they are not really "magic" based and not really "science" based. Also, no vampires or werewolves. (Yeah!) Hence, the genre dilemma.

Whatever the genre, I thought the novel worked really well, and I plan to go back and read the first one. The protagonist is interesting and likable, and the plot was unique and tightly written. My only real criticism is that there were a few points in the book that lagged and seemed like filler, but that's a minor nit.

I confess I have another, more personal, reason I enjoyed Conspiracies. The novel I'm trying to sell is also one of those difficult to define genre novels, and this book is the closest I've seen to mine. Proof that people out there read this stuff!

First Page Entry #4

Forever Keep

A faint breath of violets roused me, a tease of spring air, sunshine and Jeran's kiss. It was a lovely whisper, and pure fantasy. I'd yet to open my eyes, but I was under no misconceptions, Nevron Kareck did not bedeck his dungeons with flowers and my husband was nowhere at hand, thank the gods.

Sometimes I simply smelled violets. It was a construct of my mind, a limited form of defense, granted, but it consumed none of my pathetic strength. Indeed, after calling up the dream-scent with a purpose during the first weeks of my incarceration it now came on its own whimsy.

I didn't mind. Those dreams were a fair stretch better than reality, a reality now breaking upon me.

Screaming wrists and shoulders warned I was strung up by my arms, and the stone beneath my knees, marble-smooth rather than rough, told me I was not in my cell, but in the chamber Kareck dubbed his workroom. Cuts, bruises and breaks re-announced their presence as well, but it was the injury notorious in absence which pained most darkly.

The gut wound, with its deadly seepings, was traitorously Healed.

I groaned.

"She's conscious, my lord." Mavene, the bitch.

I'm intrigued by this story. I would read on, definitely. Got a big problem up front. Got a character who's already gaining my sympathy by dreaming of better times, she's in a dungeon, and she so far seems pretty brave if she's able to call her captive names.

But the sentence structure concerns me right off in the first graph. For instance:

I'd yet to open my eyes, but I was under no misconceptions, Nevron Kareck did not bedeck his dungeons with flowers and my husband was nowhere at hand, thank the gods.

Technically, we've got four complete clauses here and two compound sentences. It's a run-on, to get picky with it, because of improper punctuation. This alerts me as an editor because I wonder if I must re-punctuate the entire story. I'm not saying I'd cut this into four separate sentences, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I passed it through like this without some thought. The two compounds need to be separated by a semi-colon and if I'm doing that, I'd just go to a full-top, and then what's to really keep me from reworking the pacing altogether? Would it work better with a choppy beat? No? But two compound sentences in sequence might bug me... Well, it could work here, but not if that pattern repeats itself. So you see how this leads on?

Caveat. Of course writers employ improper punctuation and run-ons and fragments for effect. But this writer loves long sentences. One of them has 39 words! Whew! I had to go back and reread a couple of times. So in this case, sentence structure is kicking me out of the story rather than taking me by the hand and leading me through it.

To verge further into editorial opinion: Long sentences add to the dreamy sequence at the start, but greatly hinder the transition into cold, hard reality later on. I also don't feel the stone beneath my knees or the cuts and bruises, though this writer
is clearly capable of making me do so. They're buried in so many words, the effect is lost.

Sentence structure is one of the tools in your box, affecting everything from meaning to pacing to atmosphere. It's your job as writers to employ structure to gain intended effect. I don't have total confidence I'm in capable hands in this piece, so I'm wary. But because of the inciting incident,
I would read on.

Thanks so much for entering so we all can learn, including me! :)

27 July 2009

First Page Entry #3

Hi. First, a word about formatting. Typesetting is the editor's job. We get some crazy-like formatting in our submissions. Some writers lurve them some typesetting, so we get bold, capped titles and pretty italic bylines and squigglies instead of # scene breaks. Please remember, everything you do to your manuscript, we have to undo.

Em-dashes and two spaces after semi-colons make it easier on our tired eyes.
Things like underlining rather than italics make it much easier to find. (My personal most hated is _word_ because it requires annoying deleting.) We ask for industry-standard formatting to make it easier for writers, so please read our guidelines.

Ok, here goes with another First Page Contestent:

Eternal Amusements

Each time Jewel promised herself she’d remember, but she never did.

It started the same way; standing at the turnstile holding a ticket made of stars. It shined so brightly she couldn’t read what it said. Jewel handed it to the clapping monkey who waved her through. She passed under the arched entrance and took in the carnival music, the giggling of children, and the sound of roller coasters whooshing through the air. Now she remembered.

“Welcome back,” said a park greeter who resembled Jewel’s mother. The woman’s cotton candy pink lips stretched and spun into a smile.

“Thank you.” Jewel continued on, leaving the woman and the memory of her mom to dissolve like warm sugar into the sunlight.

“Would you like a map?” asked a man with white cheddar popcorn teeth. She inhaled his hospitality, relishing the fresh popped smell.

“No, thank you. I’ve been here many times,” she said confidently.

Jewel walked past the merry-go-round. The blasé faces rotated along the circular track; their scenery never changing, their ride lacking excitement.

Under her breath she uttered, “Never again.”

There's some evocative imagery here--the ticket made of stars, the clapping monkey, the popcorn teeth and warm sugar in sunshine. Unfortunately, I have no idea what this story is about. The first line in particular bothers me. I'm not crazy about enigmatic hooks. In my experience, too often it means the premise and story problem isn't solid enough. But I think it's an easy fix. Simply state what it is she won't remember, if that does in fact relate to the story problem. (I'm thinking it had better relate, being the first line and all.)

I'm going to pick out another line because it holds both showing and telling. For the record, I don't disapprove of telling, nor this line. I just think it's an interesting opportunity to study a subtle difference.

The blasé faces rotated along the circular track; their scenery never changing, their ride lacking excitement.

The first two clauses are showing - pure description. T
heir ride lacking excitement leans more to the telling camp, because it makes a judgement call for the reader. This writer is good enough to not rely on much telling because of demonstrated skill with description. But back to my disclaimer: sometimes it's easier to tell in a short story because we don't have a lot of real estate to move the plot along. That's a writer's judgement call.

Overall, even though the description puts me in the scene, not knowing why Jewel is there makes it tough for me to care. Writing is communicating. A story is a contract that claims: here is a problem and I'm going to give you a rollicking ride to its resolution. Don't keep secrets from the reader. Be specific. Show action that provides pertinent, solid information. Set not only the scene--which is done well here--but the premise for the story.

Thanks so much for sending this in! I've got lots more coming up, so stay tuned!

22 July 2009

Writing on Reading: City of Ember

Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember is a YA book aimed at grades 4-7. I read it because it was recommended by my daughter, who (thus far) is not much of a fantasy fan. She thinks the Harry Potter books are too scary, and she couldn't get into Peter and the Starcatchers. But she assured me that City of Ember was "my kind of book." She was right. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if I fall into the YA target audience better than adult spec-fic. (See, for instance, the rave review I gave to Little Brother).

I very much enjoyed City of Ember. Yes, the plot was somewhat simple and predictable. However, the world was quite unique and the characters sympathetic and lovable. Sometimes it is refreshing to read a short, no-nonsense fantasy tale--just the way you liked them when you were a kid.

21 July 2009

First Page Entry #2

When twilight brought sirocco winds sweeping through the mud brick alleys of ancient Aplinar, Meida roused from a sweaty doze to prepare for the evening. She braided her damp curls and donned the local fashion, a loose-fitting salwar tunic and baggy kameez pants of the working class, then draped herself in a dark blue chadri. Made of silk and embroidered with a pattern of leaves and vines forming glyphs intended to guard the wearer's virtue, the chadri was high caste, expensive—and something Meida might have chosen to wear in the long ago days at the Temple. It was also stifling, both because of heat and the magical cloud it settled upon her aura. The expensive bit of camouflage would go down the nearest midden as soon as she was done with it, and good riddance. But for now it masked her power and the various charms, gris-gris and mundane weaponry she carried on her person.

She checked her gear one last time, made sure all was ready for a hurried departure, coded the biolock on her bags with a thumbprint, and sketched a glyph of aversion across both possessions and the rickety door. Then, in a ritual as old as her freedom, she checked the rubies at forehead, wrist, ankle, neck and navel, ensuring they remained bound against the golden semiconductors tracing her skin.

Here's an instance of personal editorial bias: this writer has hit upon a favorite of mine. Well written epic-style fantasy, sword and sorcery, and medieval-esque worlds are not something we see a lot of in our slush (well-written being key). I love me some magic and swords and folks getting around on horses.

I have a hunch this will be a well-written tale. We're in a new world, and I'm grounded and intrigued by the clever use of contrasts (what she's wearing verses why she doesn't want to wear it and how it alludes to her past; expensive, disposable clothes verses rickety doors). We suspect she's in some danger, not because the author ever mentions it but because this is a classic example of showing: the care with which she dresses and protects her belongings indicates some threat.

Plus there's nary a line of internal narrative in sight. That's another personal bent--I'm not crazy about a ton of internal narrative, especially when it stands in for showing a character in action. To me, internal narrative often stops the story and feels too intrusive. However, some editors greatly favor well-written internal narrative, even editors on staff here at Electric Spec. :)

In a couple of hundred words I know a dozen things about this character and setting:
  • She's in an ancient city
  • at twilight
  • it's windy (Hemmingway says "don't forget the damned weather")
  • she lives in a world with distinct castes
  • she's a careful, capable character
  • likely adult
  • she used to go to Temple--there's religion (briefly mentioned details flesh out a world)
  • she's a she (you'd be surprised)
  • she's in potential danger
  • with a past she doesn't want to return to ("a ritual as old as her freedom")
  • she has money or means of some sort (expensive, magical clothes, bags, rubies)
  • she does her own magic,
  • indicating a level of education and sophistication

What I don't know is the story problem. That's okay so far because the action strongly alludes to one.

Now, all that said, there are questions I'd be asking myself as I read, especially if a problem didn't present itself pretty quick. Starting a story when a character wakes up is ancient cliche. Would the story work better if it started when the character was fully awake? Next, we learn a lot from her getting dressed, true. But you have, say, 3-5K words to get your entire story across. If the narrative continues in this leisurely pace I'd start wondering if only mundane stuff was going to happen for pages and pages. (Showing mundane action in great detail is something Lesley aptly calls "walking the dog".) This is something we notice in those 6999 word tomes in which every action and outfit is outlined in exhaustive detail.

There were several unfamiliar words to this editor: sirocco, kameez, chadri, salwar. Big, made-up, and unfamiliar words makes fantasy fun! And it's a sign of confidence in a storyteller, dropping slang and world-specific terms in-text without explanation. But think carefully about how many you want to throw at a reader at once.

A couple of elements in the last graph threw me as SF over F, which were biolock and semiconductors. I like when genre elements mingle. Heck, my own WIP is a futuristic multi-world fantasy with a ton of SF weaponry and a mix of ancient and future socio-economic conditions. But I think you have to warn a reader early on that the combination of elements is not going to be standard fare. Is this early enough? I don't know. Like I said, I noticed it. But I wouldn't stop reading for it.

All in all, I'd definitely read on.

Thanks for playing and keep 'em coming! We have several, but there's always room for more, so tell your friends. :)

20 July 2009

First Page Critique Game

Galaxy of Spirits

“It must be strange for you, standing here after all this time.”

Mark breathed in the thin, dry, dusty air. “Lost would be a better description.” He walked a few steps further away from the shuttle and stopped. Crouching down, he pushed his hands into the sand and watched the two handfuls he pulled up fall through his fingers.

“Do you want to be left alone?”

“I want to be sent back home.”

“Do you want to be left alone?”

Mark sighed. “Just leave me in peace for a while.”

“It can only be for a minute, then we have to return to the homeship.”

The slow, crunching sound of Hanry's methodical walk back to the shuttle was only a mild relief to Mark. After the extended grind of metal on sand as Hanry turned round on the sand by the shuttle's ramp, there was relative silence.

Mark listened to the faint sound of the wind in the thin atmosphere. He stood up and glanced over his shoulder at the lump of human shaped metal and plastic that was Hanry. He stood there, unmoved, waiting for the moment when his internal chronometer would start the program to collect Mark and take him back to the shuttle. “Typical bloody robot.”

Cool, intriguing title.

I greatly prefer a story problem to present itself as close to the start of the story as possible. I subscribe to the "start the story on the first page and end it on the last" school of thought. This is not a "rule," though I'm hardly the only one with that bent. This is my strong preference. But preference is what you run up against with editors.

So, from reading this, all I've got is that Mark wants to go home. No idea why. No imminent threat or dilemma. I don't see much holding him back from this goal, if that is his goal. (In fact, he's about to get on the "home"ship.) This is not to say I need a shoot-'em-up right off the bat. But I need some hint of a problem, a sizable one that compels me to wonder how Mark is going to solve it.

See my thinking here? A page in and I'm still looking for something to grab me: a cool setting, a problem, and a compelling character to solve it. I'm not thinking what will Mark do next?

As for the writing, I see a couple of issues that alerted me that this story might not be for me. For instance, I'm not a fan of stacked modifiers because it makes for sufficient writing rather than great writing. "Thin, dry, dusty air" is sufficient, but that's really all it is.

Put yourself in my shoes for a minute.
  • I'm on a new planet. I'd like to know what the air tastes like, what Mark smells, what it tells him. Has a bomb gone off, ruining the atmosphere? Is he breathing bones and ash? Alien poop? What's the sand feel like? Hot? Cold? Remind him of that time on Orion5 when he hung out with that chick? Played with his kid? Killed that guy? Which leads me to:
  • I've just met Mark. I feel the writer missed the opportunity to directly link Mark's experience of breathing, the simplest of acts, right into Mark's personality, past, problem, and to this world he's standing on. As an aside, I live at altitude in a semi-arid climate. I breathe thin, dry, dusty air pretty often. How does Mark's experience differ from mine? Or does it? Either way is okay, but it's the writer's job to control the reader's experience to some degree. That's what editors mean when they say they're in the hands of a great storyteller.
I like when writers use every opportunity to subtly introduce character and situation via action. I don't mean drag me through a bunch of internal narrative. Just drop a few clues to help me get my boots on the ground. So while this scene is sufficient, it doesn't work nearly as hard as it could.

Ditto with "was." For the record, I don't hate was. I think it's a handy little verb. But I like to call to-be construction "kinda passive" construction, more as a joke than anything. Some people call all to-be construction passive construction, but that's not technical enough for this editor. Passive construction is when action is being done to the subject in the sentence rather than the subject being the actor. In either case, I always ask myself: is there a better way to rephrase?

Now, I realize that by using was it might've been the writer's intent to add to the aura of malaise. But when I see a bunch of to-be construction combined with something like stacked adjectives, I start wondering if the writing will be
just sufficient throughout. The vast majority of our rejections have sufficient writing.

I'd give this a few more graphs, but it'd have to make a turn-around pretty quickly to get me to read on.

Thanks so much for playing! Hopefully this is of some help! Readers, feel free to kindly comment and ask questions in the thread.

15 July 2009

First Page Critique Game!!!!!!!!!!

It's time for another First Page Critique Game!!!!!!!!!!

I've been pretty slow in blogging lately, not to mention my slush--summer's for hanging with the kids outside, not working! Y'all need to kick me into gear! The Game Is On.

Slightly adjusted rules:

1. Send FIRST PAGE only. Yes, you may finish your sentence @ 200 words. Per our guidelines, that's generous. A title might be nice, too. Please don't explain what the story is about in your email. A short story should stand on its own. A first page should stand on its own as well, since that's sometimes all the time you get with an editor before s/he hits delete.

Free advice: don't summarize your story in regular cover letters either.

2. Speculative Fiction only. Meaning Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror. Gimme ghosts and goblins and the undead and zombies and magic, the more the better. Speculative elements should be a MAJOR part of the plot, not a side gig or deus ex machina, yanno? See current issue for what I mean.

Free advice: You'll notice lots of times the speculative elements appear on the first page. Take from that what you will.

2. Send your First Page Only labeled RE: First Page Game to submissions @ electricspec . com. Feel free to include your entry in the body of the email. You MUST label your entry or it'll get lost in our sizable slush. This angers the slushmaster and his editors.

Free advice: You wouldn't like us when we're angry.

Please note: this game is not a shortcut around our slush. Regular submissions labeled this way will be deleted unread.

3. While you may submit a previously rejected story for an opinion, do not submit stories currently in the ElectricSpec slush thinking you can get a quicker turnaround. Trust me, we'll figure it out at some point and get really really irritated with you, and your name shall be forever inscribed upon our Wall Of Shame.
Ditto with other people's work, published or not. Don't try to trick us or do someone else a favor or a wrong. On that note, obviously we can't control whether or not it's on submission somewhere else. Use your best judgment.

Free advice: Tricking editors and breaking rules makes bad mojo.

4. The entries will appear anonymously, unless you identify yourself in the comments. However, please use your real name in the email.

Free advice: While we're on the topic, go ahead and write me a little note. Ask a question or make a comment. Who knows? I might even answer. This is a chance to communicate in other ways than through our slush pile and I love talking to writers!

5. By submitting to The Game, you're agreeing to allow us to publish your first page on this blog alongside our comments so that others may learn from your foibles and fantastica. Certainly if the story is accepted elsewhere for publication and you want us to remove the post, we can do that.

Free advice: some magazines, especially the electronic sort, consider any publication online to be publication. Most experts agree that an excerpt is not considered "published

6. By submitting to The Game, you're confirming the work is yours and that you own full rights. Previously unpublished is best.

7. Even if I like your page really really lots and lots, it doesn't guarantee publication in ElectricSpec. But if I like your page lots and lots, feel free to submit the whole story to us pronto. If I like it not so much, feel free to revise and submit the whole story to us pronto.

8. This is my game, I made it up, I make up the rules at will. The other editors may or may not participate, that's up to them. Keep in mind we all have day jobs and families and Lives, so I'm not promising a quick turn-around. Last time I got several at once and it took me awhile to get through them.

9. Please don't harass us if we don't fall in love with your page. Our regular policy is to NOT comment on stories from our slush, so this is a special exception. Real special.

Free advice: no toadies or sycophants, please. I get enough of that from Gremlin.

10. [Reserved for any other rules we think up.]

14 July 2009

Writing on Reading: The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind is fantasy novel is an impressive debut. It has sold extremely well, gotten great reviews, and developed a large fan base. The accolades are well-deserved, if perhaps a little over-the-top. The book is well-written, with a fairly unique, complex world and good characterization. My only real criticism of the book is same that I have for many epic fantasies these days: it feels like only part of a book. After a hefty 600 or so of the pages, none of the books major plot lines get resolved. Here's a lot of heavy foreshadowing about exciting things come come, but all of the "answers" to the novel's mysteries have been put off for another day.

As a result, fans have been pestering Rothfuss for the next book since its release in 2007. While I sympathize with authors who are under fan (and publisher) pressure to get our another book, I can see why fans have been so impatient. Reading The Name of the Wind is a bit like being 3/4 of the way through a great book and then having someone steal if from you so you can't finish.

Slush Review

I read slush earlier in the week. Biggest problem: not getting what the story is about. Speculative fiction is slippery and the worlds are new and different. Many writers failed to ground this editor with scene setting and primary conflict.

This is unusual. Typical problems include unoriginal concept, enough small mechanics issues that they add up to a lot of work for a tired editor, or perfectly good stories that just don't suit our magazine. (The whole "don't suit our needs at this time" is truer more often than you'd imagine.)

If you've got a particularly original plot or are blending genres or really stretching things in any particular direction, then you've got to be even more particular about setting the scene and establishing the story problem. Get the primary problem as close to the first page as you can, definitely in the first scene. Establish answers to the journalistic questions that every reader wants answered: Who? What? Where? When? and especially Why?

We love originality here at Electric Spec, but it's not a license to blow off the rest of your job as a writer.

13 July 2009

Stories within Stories

I've read several submissions recently that have featured a character telling a story about other characters. I find that this technique rarely works in the short story form, either as a way of introducing backstory or as an alternate way of telling the primary story. A few problems are inherent in that technique:
  • The story feels less immediate because the connection with the protagonist is distanced
  • There's a credibility problem: can we believe the character that is telling the story?
  • Formatting can be difficult, especially when you have to use quotes inside quotes
So, if you find a character in one of your stories telling a story, think about taking the "telling" character out and writing the story from the POV of the true protagonist. If the backstory is complex but also essential to the story, then consider rethinking the plot. How can you make it more immediate?

09 July 2009

overly idealized characters?

One of my writing groups recently brought up the concept of "Mary Sue" and "Gary Stu". I must admit I was not familiar with the term. Apparently Mary Sues and Gary Stus are overly idealized characters. Wikipedia indicates they lack flaws, and primarily function as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors. Hhm...my Mary Sue would be a famous editor who wanted to buy dozens of books from me... Oh, wait, I digress.

I was shocked to hear authors still write characters like this. Didn't this go out in the 1950s? None of our Electric Spec authors do this.
Has anyone read any Mary Sues lately?

Keep sending us your flawed-character-filled stories!
(I must confess I am a little behind on my slush, but will catch up by the end of the month.)

02 July 2009

Writing on Reading: Brasyl

I recently read the 2007 novel Brasyl by Ian McDonald. It's been nominated for many awards including the best novel Hugo (2008) and best novel Nebula (2009). I picked up it because of a rave review in Asimov's or Analog (can't recall which, sorry) which said among other things it is a novel of The Multiverse.

Brasyl has three Brazilian timelines: 1732, 2006, and 2032. In these three time lines there are different pov characters including an Irish-Portuguese Jesuit, a psychotic rogue priest, a french natural philosopher, a reality TV producer, a quantum hacker, and a hustler. The 1732 plotline is very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or maybe even Francis Ford Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now. The 2006 and 2032 timelines really reminded me of William Gibson's Neuromancer, by which I mean a lot of style, perhaps at the expense of plot.

The so-called science in this science fiction novel is a magical frog. Specifically, there's an Amazonian frog "whose eye is so sensitive that it can perceive a single photon of light, a single quantum event. The frog sees the fundamental quantum nature of reality." Thus, folks lick the frog and it enables them to perceive and move between the multitude of quantum realities.

I really try to stay positive in these little mini-reviews, so I'll leave you with this: This book is very creative.

Did you read it? What did you think?

Oh, and there's a Portuguese-English glossary in the back of the book--you'll need it.