28 December 2010

How do you write?

Over my Christmas vacation I read John Irving's 2009 novel Last Night in Twisted River. It shows the development of a novelist and the writing process in that it is a story within a story. Interestingly, the career of the novelist in the book is similar to Irving's career. As a writer myself I found Irving's Afterward particularly fascinating. He admits he's gotten some flack over the years, and says of one conversation with a reader,
I was a dinosaur--or worse, a reactionary. ...I had told her a story. But that's what I do. And if you're telling a story --especially to illustrate a point--you'd better know what happens in the story before you start.
This is good advice. :)

Amazingly, Irving starts his works at the end!
Endings not only matter to me; endings are where I begin a novel or a screenplay. If I don't know the ending, I can't begin--and I don't mean that I need to know only what happens. I need to know the tone of voice, and the last sentence (or sentences). I write not only to a moment in time, but to a sound--a feeling. I have to know what that feeeling is, or I won't start.

From the last sentence, I work my way back to where the story begins. This constitutes a kind of road map in reverse. That process--of working my way backward through the plot, from the last sentence to the first--usually takes a year or eighteen months, sometimes longer. But for twelve novels now, the last sentence has always come first. And those last sentences have never changed in the process--not even the punctuation.

Wow!

How do you write?

26 December 2010

Over-Hooking

In past posts, we have emphasized that it is important to try to get our attention on the first page of a story, preferably the first paragraph. Sometimes I get the impression that authors are trying too hard to grab a reader's (or editor's) attention. For lack of a better term, I will call this an "over-hook." One example is a story that starts in mid-action. For example, the first few lines of a story are as follows:
Jordan's fingertips clung to the cliff edge. He knew he'd never survive the 1000-foot fall if he let go, and yet his fingers burned with agony. This must be the end . . .

A protagonist in immediate peril--who could ask for more? Well, me, for one. I don't know who Jordan is, so I really don't care that much about whether he falls off the cliff. In fact, I'm not at this point very much concerned about his burning fingers. Other than the fact that this story has "action" I have no clues about plot or genre. I'm left with the impression that the author is trying to sell me a story rather than tell me a story.

A second example of an over-hook is simile overkill. I think authors should be weary of similes in general, but a whopper in the first sentence or two smacks of an over-hook. For example, Bob's head pounded. If felt like a thousand scorpions were tap dancing on his frontal lobe.

An author creative and clever enough to come up with a unique simile--who could ask for more? Me, for one. Sometimes a simile can be an effective tool, but, in this instance, if feel like the author is screaming "LOOK AT ME!" I'm not looking for a clever author, I'm looking for a stunning story. If I get to the end of the story having ben lost in the author's world for a time, then I realize the true talent of the writer.

21 December 2010

Writing on Reading--WWW:WATCH

In November 2009 I blogged about Robert J. Sawyer's novel WWW:WAKE in Spec Fic Tools VI: Plot. I analyzed some aspects of plot and concluded he did an excellent job with the novel.

Recently, I read the 2nd novel in the trilogy, WWW:Watch, (2010) and I have to say it continues to be very good. As faithful Electric Spec readers and writers know, Sawyer was kind enough to let us interview him in 2008. Of course, now he's famous for writing the novel Flashforward--which was the (loose!) basis for the TV series.

WWW:WATCH continues the adventures of Caitlin, the precocious blind 15-year-old, and her emergent A.I. friend Webmind. In WWW:WATCH Webmind has come to the attention of WATCH — the secret government agency that monitors the Internet for any threat to the United States, whether foreign, domestic, or online — and the agents are fully aware of Caitlin's involvement in its awakening. WATCH is convinced that Webmind represents a risk to national security and wants it purged from cyberspace. But Caitlin believes in Webmind's capacity for compassion — and she will do anything and everything necessary to protect her friend.

This is pretty standard SF fare in terms of plotting, but very well executed. Certainly, the ideas, such as the emergent A.I. are very neat and interesting (which is why they've been explored before). I do think Caitlin's feelings, and the emphasis on Webmind's compassion and the relationship between the two characters are a more modern take on SF. In the 'good old days' a SF novel about A.I. would not have a female protatonist, and it certainly wouldn't consider peoples' emotions.

Hurray for modern SF! :)

Notice, too, how well the novel title works here.

I've decided the truly amazing thing about these books is Sawyer does an excellent job with characterization. In particular, he does an awesome job characterizing the 15-year-old girl. There's also a subplot about Hobo, a chimp/bonabo cross; Sawyer does a very good job characterizing this 'character' as well. And the interactions between Webmind and Hobo are fascinating.

How many books have believable empathetic non-homo-sapien characters?

I look forward to the final novel in the trilogy!

Did anyone else read it? What did you think?

Happy Solstice!

19 December 2010

Humble Heros

Authors have invented all kinds of hero-protagonists for their books, but I've noticed the "humble" hero is quite popular, especially in YA. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is often sure in his own mind that he is not quite up to the task before him. Even when he accomplishes a task, he usually attributes his success to a combination of luck and help from friends rather than his own quickness, bravery, or cleverness. In fact, a big part of Harry's growth as the series continues is gaining confidence in his own abilities.

Katniss in the Hunger Games takes the "humble hero" to the next level. Instead of simply downplaying her accomplishments, she sees them as evidence of her character flaws. Deep down, she sees herself as someone interested only in her own (or her family's) survival and therefore incapable (or undeserving) of love. Part of her character growth is learning that she is a person worthy of the love that other give her.

I imagine this kind of character is appealing to children and teens because they, too, are working on some of the same issues. Am I capable? Am I worthy? But, as we know, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games are enjoyed by adults, too. I think the appeal that adults have for these kind of heros is slightly different. We love to see someone who does good because it is the right thing to do--not because they want others to see them doing it. We hope to live up to that ideal ourselves and that others do the same.


17 December 2010

Notes from the Slush Pile

I just wanted to say, those of you who are querying stories, or most of you, that I'm the hold up. Not Dave. Not Lesley. Me. Bets.

Sorry. I'm crashing through the first draft of a book and by the time I can sit down to read, well, let's just say I wouldn't show as much lenience as you'd like out of your slush reader. So I've been waiting for things to quiet a bit.

I know, I know, they never get much quieter, but when I'm through drafting this book (working title: THE LOST PRINCE, a space opera, hopefully released next year) at least I won't be crabby when I sit down to read. :) It's also my excuse for not posting here as much as I should. Lesley's really been holding up her end on that. Thanks, Lesley!

That said, I have been reading some slush this evening, and it seems a few writers got the idea we might like a more literary bent to our stories. Ummm, not so much. We're a genre rag. Oh, and I like my main characters to be sentient beings, as well as warranting a mention somewhere in the first 250 words or so.

That's all. More notes from the slush pile and lots of other fun, coming soon!!

16 December 2010

Genre vs. Literary Fiction

Many of you probably already saw this, but there's been some interesting 'debate' about Genre vs. Literary Fiction this week.

In The Guardian Edward Docx asked Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction? (He doesn't think so.) IMHO, one of the big draws of Larsson and Brown is story--they do a very good job sucking you into the plot.

Laura Miller explained Why we love bad writing at Salon.com.

I have another hypothesis: lots of genre writing is good writing. :)

Anyone else have any thoughts?

14 December 2010

Keeping the Faith

As 2010 draws to a close, one might be tempted to review how well one did on those 'New Years Resolutions'... Did you have any resolutions related to writing? How did you do?

I already mentioned Editor Betsy's nice post there is no punchline to life but I recently came across The Day I Quit Writing by Pikes Peak Writer Mandy Houk. Mandy discovers as hard as writing is, not-writing is even more difficult.

Incidentally, Pikes Peak Writers has decided to make membership free. Check it out to improve your craft, learn about the business of writing, connect with other writers, share successes and failures, and grow as a writer.

Do you have any tips on 'Keeping the Faith'? How do you keep writing (or anything else, for that matter!) when your success isn't quite what you'd like?

Keep sending us those stories!

08 December 2010

So-so Suspense

I've been reading some of the Harry Potter books, and I've noticed that Rowling likes to use a suspense technique at the beginning of her stories that I've never been enamored with. I'll call it the "suspended information" technique. (If there's a formal term for this, please comment!). Here's how Rowling uses it in the Goblet of Fire: The various adults hint and comment that "something big" is coming during the next school year, but they refuse to say what it is. Pretty soon, it sounds like everyone knows what this "something big" is except Harry and his friends. Even his minor nemesis Malfroy knows and taunts Harry for his ignorance. Finally, Dumbuldore lets the cat out of the bag: the upcoming Tri-wizard Tournament. At that point, we get a big info dump about what the tournament is, how it works, etc.

Rowling uses a similar technique in Order of the Phoenix, keeping Harry ignorant of what Voldemort has been up to until another big info dump happens.

Like I said, I'm not crazy about this technique. It creates somewhat of a false sense of suspense because, in reality, the protagonist could find out the information sooner rather than later. The author has simply manipulated the plot so that information is withheld. The "suspense" is the timing of the author's reveal of information that should be readily available. On the other hand, I confess that Rowling uses this technique to her advantage because (1) she injects some suspense where otherwise there wouldn't be much until the larger plot develops further; (2) it disguises the info dump. In other words, since the protag so desperately wants to know the revealed information, we as readers don't mind a whole much of narrative and dialogue that is really backstory and/or worldbuilding.

This technique should not be confused with another so-so suspense technique, where the author and the protag collaborate to keep the reader in the dark. A crude example of this would be: "Joe had to sit down as he read the letter from his father. He felt like he was going to be sick. He couldn't couldn't imagine finding out anything more horrible." [end chapter]. The next chapter takes place three days later, with Joe going about his normal life. Joe never bothers to inform the reader what was in the letter. We only find out several chapters later. (And, even worse, we find out it's not so horrible and Joe overreacted.)

This technique feels like a cheat. As readers, we feel we have a right to know what's going on in our protag's head, which includes knowing the information our protag knows. In the above example, the chapter-ending cliffhanger would be okay if, in the next chapter we see Joe, we soon find out what horrible information the letter revealed. But withholding this info from the reader for long periods usually only serves to piss off readers. (I can think of a few examples where this technique has worked, but I can't really explain why).

07 December 2010

Notes from the Slushie Pile

I hope everyone is still enjoying the fabulous November 30 issue of Electric Spec. Behind the scenes we've already started working on the February 2011 issue. We've been going through the slushie, er, slush pile. I would really like to give feedback on stories but we've learned the hard way it doesn't work.

So, here are some hopefully-helpful comments from recent reading:
  • First of all, ElectricSpec publishes genre fiction. This means--besides some aspect of F/SF/H--we want to see some kind of character who has some kind of issue/problem and does some kind of action, leading to some kind of resolution. Please see my earlier post on How to write a short story. Please note this means something has to happen in the story. Please note this means there must be a conclusion to the story. I freely admit this is not the only possible kind of story, but this is what we look for. Hence the tip: Authors, be familiar with your target market.
  • Does your first page pass the "WTF?" test? If I read the first page and cannot tell WTF is going on...it's gonna get a pass. How do you avoid this problem? Give you first page to your spouse/child/friend/complete stranger and ask them if they can tell what's happening. When your spouse smiles and nods and says "Of course, honey." follow up and ask "What?" and listen to their response. Does it agree with what you meant?
  • The converse of WTF can also be a problem. Does your story have too much exposition/explanation? Is every character identified by first and last name, complete job history, and extensive family relationships? Is the beginning of the story a history of your world? Ideally, authors should give the reader only what they need to know. Note a lack of dialogue can be an indication of this.
  • Speaking of characters... How do you describe your characters? It is the mark of a beginning author to describe characters with a laundry list of physical characteristics. "Juanita had flowing black hair." Instead, try to show the reader about the character of the character. :)
    What do the authors do in your favorite published fiction? With the exception of romance novels, physical characteristics of characters are rarely given in fiction these days.
  • Speaking of descriptions... Authors are told to write specific--which is good advice. But choose your specific details carefully; focus what's important. Are the buttons on the jacket really what you want to focus on? Authors should also be aware that taking time to describe something draws attention to it. If I describe the ray-gun on page one...
  • Incorrect grammar and spelling is not good. I suspect a lot of what we see is due to certain features of certain software. People mix up the/then/they/there, etc. Autocorrect is not always your friend.

We do appreciate you sending us your stories. Thank you!

Keep 'em coming!

30 November 2010

Why Write?

As 2010 (and November's NaNoWriMo!) draws to a close I'm starting to wonder: Why write? Does anyone else wonder this? Did you fulfill your writing goals for 2010? For November 2010? Why or why not? What do you get out of writing? Sales? If not, what?

Editor Betsy had an interesting post in mid-November somewhat related to this: there is no punchline to life, in which she outlines some of the reasons she writes including making friends, being creative, improving her skills, growing as a person, etc.
It's a helpful post if you start to 'lose the faith'.

Followers of Electric Spec know today is a red letter day for us: we are officially a quarterly 'zine! Huzzah!
Some people who have achieved a punchline of sorts are the authors we feature in Today's New Issue of Electric Spec: RJ Astruc, Miranda Suri, Grey Freeman, Jude-Marie Green, Josh Pearce. Please go check out their stories. They rock!

Thank you to all the authors who have submitted to us. Thank you to all the readers who read us. Without all these folks, we wouldn't exist. We appreciate you.
Thank you, too, to our behind the scenes, tech folks, etc. We appreciate you, too! :)

And now...to work on the next issue.

23 November 2010

Utopias and Dystopias--RIP?

A local science fiction convention had an intriguing panel this fall on "Dystopias in Science Fiction". From what I could tell, folks have conflated dystopias with post-apocalyptic fiction.

Technically, a dystopia is supposed to include a society that has devolved into a controlled and repressed state in which individual freedoms are constrained--by the government/society. Of course, the most famous dysopias are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Thus, by the most strict definition, works such as The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, would not be a dystopia. On the other hand, if we go with the pornography defense ("I know it when I see it") if a majority of people think it is a dystopia...

As far as utopias go,Edward James, a noted SF critic, claims "...the ability of the writer to imagine a better place in which to live died in the course of the twentieth century, extinguished by the horrors of total war, of genocide and of totalitarianism." And so "...utopia has not disappeared; it has merely mutated, within the field of sf, into something very different from the classic utopia."

What do you guys think?

This raises the interesting point: exactly what is a utopia? The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia, which was based on Plato's Republic. A utopia is supposed to be an ideal society. Historically, literature has contained many utopias.

Arthur C. Clarke's classic Childhood's End contains a utopia which essentially fails. Or does it? I maintain Clarke's utopia transforms into something else.
Hence when James also asks "Why should human physiology or psychology remain the same? Would what human beings recognize as utopia a millennium from now be recognizable as utopia for us at all?" I think he puts his finger on the real issue.

As society and humanity evolve, our ideas of dytopia and utopia also evolve. Therefore, to answer my question in the title--they're not dead, they've just transformed into something else. :)

Send us your transformed dystopia or utopia stories!

18 November 2010

we fixed our technical issues

I think most folks have already figure this out...
Thanks to massive efforts by our tech folks, including Editor Betsy, we have solved all our technical difficulties.
Please use the submissions@electricspec.com email again.
We're gonna blame the whole thing on Gremlin Editor.
Sorry, again, for any problems this may have caused.

16 November 2010

Reading like a Writer--Positively

As you may or may not have noticed, I've been reading a lot of classic fantasy and science fiction in 2010. I'm in a kind of book club with some other speculative fiction writers and we discuss the works.

Warning...I'm about to get on a soapbox.

Writers need to Read.

Writers need to read like Writers. By this I mean they should analyze fiction and deduce what works and what doesn't work. Every classic novel that's still in print has some things that work. Find out what they are. All writers know it's difficult creating something from scratch and putting it out there in the world. It's easy to be negative, to tear things down ==> So, don't do it.

For example, I just reread The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I read it as a kid and vaguely recalled some haunting lyrical images of an empty Mars, of a magnificent extinct race.
Today, as a writer, what do I deduce Bradbury does well?
  • The linked short story format is intriguing and he does an excellent job setting up each short story--including setting--with very few words. The stories have a huge variety of tone from humorous to serious.
  • He makes a concerted effort to address social issues such as racism
  • He makes many references to other works of literature. This makes the work richer. For example, I think I already mentioned "Usher II" in a previous blog post.
  • His writing can be very poetic, lyrical. My memories from childhood were spot on. :)

Classic works are very interesting, too, in that they're a kind of time-travel. The reader gets to be immersed in the cultural assumptions of the times. For example, in The Martian Chronicles, nuclear war breaks out on Earth and all the Martian colonists rush back to help. The characters and contemporary readers of the 1950s were a generation with WWII in their recent memory; they heard the call and they answered without hesitation.

We modern readers said, "Why would they do that? Why would they rush to war?" Times have changed.

It makes me wonder what cultural assumptions we writers are putting into our work.

What do you think? Do you have any classic favorites you'd like to share? Any time-travel via-classic-novel adventures? Any assumptions you can't get away from? :)

12 November 2010

email

Hey y'all,

We're having issues with our email address submissions@electricspec.com. Some server, techie issue...

Anyway, use electricspecsubmissions@gmail.com in the interim.

Thanks and sorry for any issues this has caused.

10 November 2010

Short Story Writing Rules

Warning: LOOOONG post below.

We're writing about how to write short stories. All I really know is my process, but it works well for me. I have a few rules for myself that I follow. As I admitted in a recent interview, drafting short stories is sheer drudgery. It's fun for a few pages and then each word becomes a trial. Fortunately, I love to have written short stories, and I love how they hone my craft, and I keep having ideas that are too small for novels or novellas, so I keep torturing myself. All these rules are really about removing my excuses for not writing them.

1. I plot.

I don't write a word until I know the beginning, middle, and end.

It takes thousands of words for me to figure out what I'm trying to say. Or I can just think about it without the whole writing complication, and work it out that way. A lot of writers think with their fingers. That's cool. It's simply not efficient for me, and plotting has never been my strong suit. So I have a very guided thought process.

2. I think about my idea in terms of STORY.

That means I frame my idea with the concepts of conflict, internal and external problems, protagonist and antagonist, character goals, rising action, obstacles, reversals, plants... in other words, I pull from my craft toolbox to plan out my story. So when I'm thinking over an idea, meandering thoughts don't last too long. It's a very focused process. Sometimes I have a character in mind. In the plot below, I have several linked stories about these people. But often I have an idea first, something I want to say, and my goal is to plan how to best illustrate it as well as find the right characters to people my world.

3. I figure out who the players are, and trim if necessary.

Each character gets a note about their internal and external goals (admittedly, though, sometimes that's in my head). If he's just some bartender and all he does is serve my protagonist a drink, or if she's a Red Shirt who dies to drive home a plot point, they don't get names. It's important to note that names, especially in the short form, indicate importance to the reader. I also combine characters when possible. A short story is no place for a cast of thousands.

4. I write it all down.

I write synopses and storyboard my novels, but I tend to draw linear plots for my short stories. Sorry it's sideways, but this is more about how I lay it out on the page than the actual words anyway.

You'll notice I draw a line down the middle of my page. That's the time-line, in a linear story. That's because most - not all! - short stories have linear plots. Mine all have, so far. On one side goes the plot, on the other, character notes. I suppose I would draw two staggered, broken lines, if I had simultaneous timelines in my story (if I were mixing past and present or different worlds or something).

Character notes on the left lay out the protagonist and antagonist, their respective goals, internal issues, and then any other players. Sometimes they're named, as I mentioned above, if they get a lot of screen time, sometimes they're not. For example, in this story a messenger delivering a missive from the battlefield to the king's tent would not be named or described at all. He's basically a prop. The King's general, though, who gets quite a lot of screen time, will be named.

The right side is for plot. You'll notice three marks quarter the line. Those are for major plot points. I always think of all my stories, no matter how long, as 4 act plays, so at the first quarter mark, the protagonist must find some way, always ineffective, to try to answer the challenge laid before him. You'll notice our Prince Regan must kill someone to maintain the respect of his men. Not something he wants to do, and it won't work, for sure.

At the center, the middle of the story, the protagonist's fortune changes irrevocably. It is at this point he must fully commit to his course or lay down his arms. Incidentally, I find this works for novels, too, and cures the "saggy middle syndrome."

Then at the final quarter, the mark indicates the launch of the climax, the final penultimate scene.

The U-shaped hashmarks indicate reversals and obstacles. There are no set number of them. Sometimes these obstacles are provided by the protagonist himself, such as when Regan questions his king about the crusade. One does not question his king in public, especially when he's the prince! Sometimes obstacles are laid out by the antagonist, like when Regan is sent to a less important battlefield right before the middle of the story.

What I don't have are any prologue or epilogue scenes, which I believe have no place in the short form. I also have an idealized requirement for all my scenes: they must show character development, they must forward the story, and illustrate the setting/world. In the best stories, all three are so tightly woven it's tough to know where one ends and another begins.

And there you have it: how I turn ideas into short stories. Hopefully there's strategies in here for everyone, but I encourage all writers to think through their own processes. Develop your own. Without some amount of meta-cognition, we can't grow as artists and crafters.

09 November 2010

How to write a short story

We have had a request for "How to write a short story". We have blogged about many aspects of this before (and perhaps we need to organize such posts a little better--any volunteers? Betsy?). Here are some thoughts on the matter...

First of all, What is a story?In essence: A sympathetic character has a problem and tries to solve it. I blogged about this in 2009 On Originality: Write Fresh referring to Robert Silverberg's excellent article(s) in Asimov's Science Fiction: Toward a Theory of Story . Let's look at aspects of this in terms of speculative fiction in a little more detail:
  • a sympathetic character. Character is key. Characters drive stories. See Characterization and The Goal is Empathy for more info. Note: the character does not have to be good but has to have some quality a reader can identify with, or at least be very curious about. Note: it is difficult to pull off more than one point-of-view character in a short story.
  • a problem. This is plot. This is conflict. This is tension. I would say further, a good story has an external problem/plot and an internal problem/character arc and solving the latter enables the former to be solved. Rarely can a short story sustain more than one linked external/internal plot arc. Note: The character needs to actively try to solve the problem. But the character does not need to be successful.
  • I would say a story that we publish must have dialogue.
  • Another aspect to a good story is voice. This is the unique flavor an author brings to the table.
  • In speculative fiction, we also need Speculative Elements including World Building. Check out some more tips for: Outstanding Spec Fic Stories
  • Stories can also include Humor. Although, at the last production meeting one editor thought a story was funny and two did not, i.e. humor is very subjective. Be careful when utilizing this.
  • At our recent production meeting I heard the words "setup" and "payoff". It's nice when the first scene sets up the payoff in the last scene. This means the seeds for the resolution of the story are planted in the first scene. Or maybe another way to look at it: the story problem is evident in the first scene. Note: there needs to be payoff, some kind of satisfaction/resolution the reader gets for reading the story.

So, there you go. Follow these tips and writing a short story should be a piece of cake! ;)
Ha ha. Yes, we all know better, but good luck!

Keep sending us your stories!

08 November 2010

the promised update ...late

I remembered today that I promised an issue update by the end of last week...Sorry!
We, the editors, had our fabulous production meeting complete with many beers.
We duked it out and picked the stories for the November 30,2010 issue.
All authors in hold-for-voting should have heard back from us by now.
(Authors: Please email us back with the contract in a timely manner. Thanks!)
If you didn't get a story in this issue; we're sorry. It's always a tough decision and issue balance is a consideration.

All, please check out the new fabulous issue of Electric Spec on November 30, 2010!

And keep sending us your stories. Thanks!

Going Short

I love it when we get specific requests in blog comments. Last week, we got a request regarding how to keep short story ideas from turning into novel ideas. In other words, how do you make a story into a "short" story, as opposed to something longer?

First, short stories are generally about one protagonist attempting to accomplish one goal. The protag may have a whole bunch of other goals, and his or her world might be filled with lots of other interesting characters who have protagonist potential. Save those for the novel or for other shorts in the same world. While not always the case, the goal of the story is usually a fairly simple one: solve the murder, get the girl, save the princess, avoid the Man, win the battle (not the war), escape the jail/ship/world, steal the money, etc. These sound simplistic and, of course, have all been done before. But, lets face it, its the kind of stuff we love to read about so long as it is well written.

Second, be careful of your pacing. Short story writers don't have the luxury of taking too much time with plotting or worldbuilding. They need to get in and out. (This is especially true of online venues, where longer stories don't work as well.) One way to get a feel for this pacing is to read lots of short stories. If all you read are novels, it will be hard to write at a short story pace. Then, when it comes time to write your story, keep an eye on the word count. If you are just "warming up" and you are already at 2000 words, the pacing is probably two slow. When you finish your story, do at least one (and preferably several) edits aimed at cutting the fat from your story. Can you slice off 1000 words? More?

If you keep practicing using the techniques above, you will eventually be able to write in "short story mode" and "novel mode" so you can sell both!

03 November 2010

Should Selling My Story Be THIS Hard?

Like many authors, I wrote my first novel before I wrote my first short story. Once my first novel didn't sell, I figured I whip out a few short stories and sell them to reputable markets so that I'd have more publication credits to my name. That's when I discovered it wasn't easy to sell a story. The pro markets are next to impossible. The semi-pro markets are . . . well, really hard. Even markets that pay next to nothing can be choosy.

Its been several years since I made that discovery, and I've learned a lot since then. I've learned that my first few attempts at short stories were not a good as I thought they were. I've learned that the best way to get better at writing short stories is to write more short stories then subject them to critique. And I've learned it was unreasonable to expect "overnight" success. Selling a great short story is hard--sometimes impossible. But it can be done!

Here are some tips to getting published:

-- Remember that the NEXT story you write is likely to be your best. Keep writing and developing your craft.
-- Pay attention to markets as best you can. What 'zine publishes stories that match the genre, tone, and style of your story? Does your story fit the theme of an upcoming anthology?
-- Did you get a rejection? Don't let the story languish. Submit the story to the next promising market on the same day
-- Send your story to the Writers of the Future contest. Odds are you will not be a finalist, but an honorable mention is nice--and it's free. Plus, it's a golden ticket if you do win
-- Decide when it time to retire a story. If you've lost passion for the story and you've submitted to more than 15 markets, maybe it's time to let it go.
--Share your triumphs. If you get published, make the short list, or get a detailed rejection, share it with your writing friends. Only they understand how tough it is
--Don't give up. Keep writing.

02 November 2010

SF is always rational...Not!

I recently read Childhood's End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke. You know Clarke, he's the guy that said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As a famous SF author, you'd think his novels would always advocate science, technology, reason and the like. This is definitely not the case in Childhood's End. Very briefly, the story involves aliens coming to Earth and what ultimately happens to human beings.

The reader gets the first inkling of Clarke's anti-rationality/anti-science theme when “the fall of religion had been paralleled by a decline in science…the heart had been taken out of fundamental scientific research..." The novel takes a decided turn towards irrationality when the reader meets Jean, who “...really seemed to think that there was something in this business of telepathy and second sight." The aliens claim "...she may be the most important human being alive." Toward the end of Clarke's story, the Overlords' suspicions are proven correct and Jean's children transform into something else--the next stage of humanity.

In the big climax the Overlords explain what happened to the humans: “Science, it was felt, could explain everything…Yet your mystics, though they were lost in their own delusions, had seen part of the truth. There are powers of the mind, and powers beyond the mind, which your science could never have brought within its framework without shattering it entirely. All down the ages there have been countless reports of strange phenomena—poltergeists, telepathy, precognition—which you had named but never explained….they exist, and, if it is to be complete, any theory of the universe must account for them. …your scientists began to investigate these matters. They did not know it, but they were tampering with the lock of Pandora's box. The forces they might have unleashed transcended any perils that the atom could have brought. For the physicists could only have ruined the earth: the paraphysicists could have spread havoc to the stars." Thus, paraphysicists trump physicists, and the irrational trumps the rational.

Wowsa! What a bizarre theme for a SF novel! Apparently anything goes when it comes to SF.
So send us your irrational or rational SF, Fantasy or Horror stories! :)

01 November 2010

2010 World Fantasy Award Winners

As many of you know, the winners of this year's World Fantasy Awards were announced at a ceremony following the closing banquet at the just-concluded World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

The winners include:
  • Best Novel: The City & The City by China MiĆ©ville (Macmillan UK/Del Rey)
  • Best Novella: "Sea-Hearts" by Margo Lanagan (X6)
  • Best Short Story: "The Pelican Bar" by Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse Three)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!

If you were there, how was it? :)

In other news, we will have an update about the new issue by the end of the week. Specifically...what's going on with hold-for-voiting for the November 2010 issue.

26 October 2010

Literary Refs in SF/F/H?

I recently read the 1956 science fiction novel The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester and there are surprisingly-many literary associations in it. Bester's literary references in Stars begin in the epigraph; he quotes part of William Blake's 1794 poem "The Tyger" and sets the tone for the entire novel. Also, I believe the novel as a whole is a SF version of Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo. I could go on and on with examples, from William Shakeaspeare's Hamlet to James Joyce's literary device to Arthur Rimbaud poems, but my point isn't what Bester references, it's that he makes literary references at all.

Do other SF/F/H works utilize references to other literature? Yes, some of them. For example, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury has a section "Usher II" which is very reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado", and of course, there's Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher". Another example is To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis--an hommage to Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome from 1889!

Can you think of other examples of literary references in SF/F/H? Do think they're a good idea, or a short cut? If the former, consider sending us a story with a literary reference. :)

25 October 2010

MileHiCon Wrap-up

Wow! MileHiCon was awesome, as usual. It was great to see old friends, make new friends, and hobnob with famous writers. For example, Jeanne Stein and Mario Acevedo were there up to their usual tricks. See Mario's post about it on their blog the Biting Edge (Including a picture of Editor Betsy--IN THE BAR!)

My panel on dystopias was standing-room-only because of award-winning novelist Paolo Bacigalupi. Paolo said he doesn't really consider his work to be dystopian. I have to agree because, at least historically, a dystopia is a futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state/government. ==> This means individuals have lost their personal rights/liberties because of this repressive entity. Ultimately, however, we posited a dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. This prompted me to ask: do we live in a dystopia now? Hhm...

My panel on weird physics was also standing-room-only--because people like weird physics, I guess. :) Initially, I said I didn't think physics was that weird; it's based on logic and math, etc. But the other panelists and the audience kept coming up with weird stuff, so I was forced to change my stance: physics is weird. Upon reflection, afterwards, physics is weird when a theory is about to be overturned/supplemented, i.e. when we're on the verge of discovering something new. Awesome!
I did have a handout of an interesting article I saw "The 10 weirdest physics facts, from relativity to quantum physics" by Tom Chivers of The Telegraph.

See Betsy's impressions here. Perhaps Dave would like to add some impressions of MileHiCon?

In other news, we are hard at work on the next issue. Keep sending us your stories.

21 October 2010

ESpec Editors at MileHiCon

This weekend (Oct 22-24) you have an opportunity to interact with the ElectricSpec Editors in person at MileHiCon--if you dare! (Cue spooky music.) Bwa ha ha!

But seriously, folks, feel free to say hi. I think we'll be wearing our Electric Spec t-shirts at least part of the time. Plus, it's a safe bet that Editor Betsy will be in the bar most--if not all--of the time. Ha ha, Betsy, just kidding. Not. :)

We will officially be participating in some excellent programming:

  • Friday 3:00-4:00 pm Dave is on the "Developing Your Writing Voice" panel
  • Friday 6:00-7:00 pm Betsy is on the "Small Press & Ezines: Finding/Dealing with New Markets" panel
  • Saturday 11:00-noon Lesley is on the "Dystopias in Science Fiction" panel
  • Sunday 1:00-2:00 pm Lesley is on the "Weird Physics" panel
  • Sunday 4:00-5:00 pm Betsy is on the "Guilty Pleasures" panel

MileHiCon is always a blast. I recommend it.
Dave, Betsy, do you want to add anything?

In other news we are working on the next excellent issue, due out Nov. 30, 2010.

Keep sending in your stories!

19 October 2010

Why do you write?

I recently reread Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 military SF novel Starships Troopers. I was struck by the realization that Heinlein is trying to influence readers and it made me wonder why he wrote. Was it purely to advocate his personal philosophies?

Critics have said, often in SF it is "...the idea that is plot and character..." (Farah Mendlesohn) and "…sf as advocacy, …[is] … the sf of 'big story' writers such as Heinlein and Asimov." (John Clute)
There's no question Heinlein has been very influential over the years, but it is because of, or in spite of, his advocacies?

Let's take a closer look at what Heinlein is advocating in Troopers. Heinlein's mouthpiece Mr. Dubois, the protagonist's instructor in History and Moral Philosophy, says, "The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war's desolation."

Of course, this refers to the lyrics of the 4th stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key, which include,
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
…And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


That's pretty blatant propagandizing on Heinlein's part!

It actually reminds me also of the sentiments espoused by President John F. Kennedy in his famous January 20, 1962 Inaugural Address, including,
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shank from this responsibility - I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.


All Kennedy's talk about this world really brings to mind other worlds. :) Will Earth ever be united? Face sentient creatures from other worlds?
At any rate, clearly, Heinlein was on his soapbox.

How about you? Do you have a soapbox? What themes do you seem to revisit? Why do you write?
Send us your (soapy?) stories!

15 October 2010

Electric Spec on Facebook

I am happy to announce that we now have a page on Facebook. Please stop by and "like" us when you get the chance.

Here's the link.

12 October 2010

role/appeal of icons in SF?

Perhaps more than any genre, SF is filled with icons. Gwyneth Jones has written an interesting essay about "The Icons in SF". She does a good job illustrating the symbolisms SF icons represent and how they came about, e.g. rockets represent weapons: "The rocket, with its upward thrusting phallic shape and dramatic flight, is an inevitable symbol of energy and escape, but a rocket is a weapon...". As a writer, I find such symbolisms fascinating.

In my opinion, the real value of icons seems to be "The icons of sf are the signs which
announce the genre, which warn the reader that this is a different world; and at the same time constitute that difference." Therefore, I believe icons are invaluable to SF for the role they play, rather than for the objects themselves.
Do you agree? Disagree?

As a reader, icons such as rockets, spaceships, robots, mad scientists and/or aliens per se do not and did not appeal to me. The primary draw of SF is as Jones says, "...perhaps sf's greatest aesthetic gift...[it] brings us closest to experiencing the romance of the scientific endeavour." This sense of wonder is the true appeal of SF. Indeed, "...the sf audience will go on coming back for more, as long as the ...message is wrapped in ...wonder, delight and playful invention."
What do you think?

Keep sending us your icon-filled stories!

All quotes from James, Edward, and Mendlesohn, Farah, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2003.

07 October 2010

Make or Break Dialogue

Dialogue can make or break a story. Three ways to "break" a story with dialogue are:

1. Make most of the story dialogue. If the story reads like you are overhearing a long conversation between two characters, beware. This has the effect of distancing the reader from the story, taking action off stage, and minimizing setting details.

2. Including no or minimal dialogue. If you scan through a story and don't see any quotation marks, it could be a sign that there is too much narrative and not enough action.

3. Meaningless dialogue. We hear and engage in meaningless dialogue every day: "Hi, how are you?" "Fine. And you?" I'm good. Nice weather." "Yup. Really sunny." We're bored enough engaging in these interactions in real life--we don't want to experience again via a short story.

Three ways dialogue can "make" a story:

1. Intrigue. A character says something that creates conflict, establishes a mystery, or give a subtle clue about how their world works.

2. Insight. The dialogue reveals something about a character's goals, morals, or (important) backstory.

3. Originality. A character speaks with a unique rhythm or vocabulary. (This does not mean trying to write in an accent, which does not often work).

05 October 2010

Does SF influence science or science influence SF?

I have a sort of 'chicken and egg' question for you: Does SF influence science or does science influence SF? To investigate, I'm going to look at Kim Stanley Robinson's 1993 novel Red Mars. In Red Mars Robinson addresses many scientific issues including manned missions to Mars, terraforming, experimental gerontology, and overpopulation.

Let's look first at manned space travel and more specifically a manned mission to Mars. Robinson describes his characters leaving earth in explicit detail:At first it felt like a shove in the chest. Then they were pushed back in their chairs... The Ares had been orbiting Earth at 28,000 kilometers per hour. For several minutes they accelerated, the rockets' push so powerful that their vision blurred as corneas flattened, and it took an effort to inhale. At 40,000 kilometers per hour the burn ended. They were free of the Earth's pull, in orbit to nothing but the sun.

Notice the numerous specific scientific elements; this is a hallmark of hard science fiction. In Kathryn Cramer's "Hard science fiction" she says, ...hard sf has digested the more disheartening findings of planetary exploration, and has begun to appreciate the planets as they actually are (rather than as we had hoped they might be)...

Robinson certainly describes the surface of Mars as it actually is, for example, The ground was a dark rusty orange, covered with an even litter of rocks the same color, although some of the rocks showed tints of red or black or yellow.

Although scientists haven't made it to Mars yet, in April 2010, President Obama called for a manned mission to Mars: "By the mid-2030's, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,"said Obama. "A landing on Mars will follow," he added. (Information Week)

In Red Mars the pressures of overpopulation lead to a revolution on Mars, in which, It was not hard to destroy Martian towns. No harder than breaking a window, or popping a balloon.

Overpopulation may well be the greatest challenge humanity will ever face and is only now starting to be addressed by journalists. In July 2010 two articles appeared in The Independent. Steve Conner wrote an article which Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston says, "We really do have to look at where we are going in relation to population. If we don't do it, we may survive but we won't flourish..." ( The Independent)

Michael McCarthy described the concerns of environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who says an inquiry into population is long overdue but "Governments have just found it too hot to handle..." (The Independent)

In fact, scientists have yet to begin to study how human population affects planet Earth, its climate, its ecology, and its resources because of the moral, ethical and political concerns surrounding population control. Let's hope something comes of these recent articles and scientists do address the issue before Earth undergoes its own revolution, because as John Clute writes in "Science fiction from 1980 to the present" The Mars trilogy ... is, of course, sf as advocacy... The stakes ...are high. ... By the twenty-first century, ... [Robinson] thinks, "rapid technological development on all fronts [has combined] to turn our entire social reality into one giant science fiction novel, which we are all writing together in the great collaboration called history."

I, for one, would prefer a happy ending to that story

So, what do you think? Does Science influence SF or is it the other way around?

04 October 2010

FYI Next Issue Deadline: Oct 15

FYI folks,
Our next issue deadline will be Oct 15, 2010, midnight U.S. Mountain Time.
Get your stories in before then to be considered for our November 30, 2010 issue!
Of course, if you miss that deadline, your story will be considered for our next issue...

01 October 2010

Character

At the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference, we did a session on short stories. Lesley had the mic right then, discussing elements. Her mention that the story needs a protagonist, a character of some sort, got a laugh.

Don't laugh.

I had two stories in my last round of slush reading with no protagonist. No character. They weren't stories; they were vague summaries on the state of some world, the sort of rambling a writer might do as a world building exercise and then file away and never look at again. In short, they had no character, so there was no drama. No drama, no story.

I think I can safely speak for all the editors at Electric Spec, we require a character in each of our stories.

Some people think characters and plots are a chicken-or-an-egg kind of deal; some stories certainly reflect that line of thought with cardboard characters. Some people just think up plots first and others think up characters first; process seems to direct which side of the fence they sit on.

But picking a side of the fence is a colossal cop-out.

Sure, events can happen without a protagonist: worlds can form, glaciers can move, bombs can blow up nameless people. But they have no power, no oomph, no drama, without a character.

And characters can do stuff, yeah? They wander into vignettes, have interesting conversations. But without the structure of a plot, a plot that can only happen to that character, it has no meaning, no drama...

Sound familiar?

Mutually dependent? I'll raise you a thousand. Characters and plot are so tightly woven in good stories it can be tough to see where one picks up and the other leaves off. It could matter less which a writer dreams up first, but they'd better, at some point, become equally as concerned with the other, or their story will suffer.

30 September 2010

Word Counts

Something writers think about, or should be, is word counts. In magazines, that seems to be laid out right in the guidelines. With novels, agents, and publishing houses, not so much. Colleen Lindsay has an update on expected word counts for genres, which seem to fluctuate. If you're shopping a novel, the whole article is worth a gander.

middle grade fiction = Anywhere from 25k to 40k, with the average at 35k

YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 120k but editors would prefer to see them stay below 100k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn't be word count for the sake of word count.

paranormal romance = 85k to 100k

romance = 85k to 100k

category romance = 55k to 75k

cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k

horror
= 80k to 100k

western
= 80k to 100k (Keep in mind that almost no editors are buying Westerns these days.)

mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction
= A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.

mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k. Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn't something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson
has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)

science fiction & fantasy = Here's where most writers seem to have problems. Most editors I've spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, some editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn't buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn't need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication. To make this all a little easier, I broke it down even further below:

---> hard sf = 90k to 110k
---> space opera = 90k to 120k
---> epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k
---> contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k
---> romantic SF = 85k to 100k
---> urban fantasy = 90k to 100k
---> new weird = 85k to 110k
---> slipstream = 80k to 100k
---> comic fantasy = 80k to 100k
---> everything else = 90k to 100k

28 September 2010

Are we creating reality together?

I read something very intriguing recently...

In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction famous F/SF academic/critic/writer Farah Mendlesohn writes: " ...sf is a discussion or a mode, and not a genre." and "...the reading of a science fiction story is always an active process of translation..." This is because "Cognitive estrangement is tied inextricably to the encoded nature of sf: to style, lexical invention and embedding. Cognitive estrangement is the sense that something in the fictive world is dissonant with the reader's experienced world."

And "...effectiveness in creating dissonance relies on the expectation that the reader will either understand what is written or will fill in the gap, creating meaning where none is provided. These two techniques are crucial to the sf project and they are cummulative. Science fiction has come to rely on the evolution of a vocabulary, of a structure and a set of shared ideas which are deeply embedded in the genre's psyche."

Wow. Do you agree? Disagree?

Send us your stories. Let's fill in the gap... let's create the genre's psyche together. ;)

26 September 2010

Thinking in first, writing in third

In previous posts, I compared writing to method acting. The key point was that you need to be in your character's head to write in your character's head. For this reason, I like to encourage new writers to write at least some of their stories in first person. It's a great way to work on getting the thought process of characters on paper and avoid the trap of simply "telling" the story like a distant, uncaring narrator.

I've discovered that when I'm truly in a character's head, I think in first person even if I'm writing in third person. Let me explain. Say I'm writing from the POV of Joan and something bad happens to her. I might think: I can't believe this happening, not after all I've gone through to get this far. If I happen to be writing in third person, it might appear on the page as, Joan couldn't believe this was happening, not after all she'd gone through to get this far. Alternatively, it might also appear on page as thought: I can't believe this is happening, thought Joan. . . .

The downside of this technique is that sometimes I forget what I'm doing and start writing in first person. I have to go back and change it. But, for me, the upside is worth it. It allows me to remove one more barrier between author and character and (hopefully) give my writing a greater impact.

24 September 2010

Le Guin on Fiction

I love writers that think and write about writing! Don't you? Award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin has many thoughts on writing...

...the tricky thing about imaginative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy, is the coherence of the imagination, because you are making a whole world out of words only. It's all made to hold together."

That's what fiction does, isn't it? All fiction? It makes a world and makes it seem real. Inner coherence (which can become aesthetic completeness) is the principle secret. It's achieved by imagination, selection, and accurate description--whether any counterpart to it exists in the real world or not really doesn't matter.

What does matter, perhaps, is whether we can find ourselves in the story as we
read it, can recognize the emotional and moral weight of human existence. Sf and fantasy are not as relentlessly human-centered as realistic fiction; they both show human beings in relation to the nonhuman, they include the human subject in a larger or stranger universe than the realistic novel does. But the story is still about us. We seem to be all we are ultimately interested in. And so, for writers and readers who see people as individuals rather than as types or groups, character becomes important even in genres where it is usually considered secondary.

What do you think matters?

23 September 2010

Le Guin on Science Fiction and Fantasy

Award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin has written quite a bit on science fiction and fantasy. I find her comments very thought-provoking. Perhaps you will as well...

Regarding SF:

Science fiction begins at the moment where science ends, and then you can go on and build on what is known. Therefore, science fiction is getting more and more difficult to write because science develops so fast that the science-fiction writer has difficulty coping with it. This is one reason why there is less and less technological science fiction written because technology has overtaken it.

I think a lot of science fiction does exactly that, 'what if' and then you propose a social change, or a physiological change, or a physical change in the world and then pursue it, like a thought experiment, pursue the consequences.

Regarding Fantasy:

Fantasy changes the world deliberately, allowing impossible things which science fiction at least pretends not to allow. ...Then you just follow out, you just follow the fictional enterprise like any novelist, it seems to me, and the more detailed and accurate you are, the better the book will be. And of course, the tricky thing about imaginative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy, is the coherence of the imagination, because you are making a whole world out of words only. It's all made to hold together.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree?

Stay tuned tomorrow for more Le Guin on fiction.

16 September 2010

What's a paying market?

I just had to share this pet peeve of mine. If a magazine says its a paying market, then I think it should mean that its is going to pay something (of value) for your story. Period. It does not mean that the "top" story of the issue gets some amount while others get nothing. Authors are not submitting their story to a contest, they're submitting it to a magazine. I'm not even that thrilled with those markets that pay more for their "top" story than others. I think it's pretty deceptive to say, for example, we pay $200 for a story when really it is $200 for one person and $5 for everyone else.

While I'm on my rant, I'll just mention that I'm somewhat suspicious of contests that charge an entry fee. What does the entry fee pay for? Maybe it is like the ante in a game of poker. The winner gets the "prize" which consists of everyone else's entry fee--minus, of course, the cut for the House.

Am I just a little bit crazy about this stuff, or do I have a legitimate beef?

13 September 2010

Conference Rundown

Two workshops and 2 panels.

Countless conversations.

Thousands of jokes.

12 hours of sleep in 3 nights.

Hours of fun and learning about the industry with this guy.

Even more with this one, Mario Acevedo, Master of the Tequila Sunrise...

So many old friends and new ones. Notables: Jeanne Stein, The Vickis, Twitter girls, Eric Sidle and The Assgrabbers, Tamera, Pam Nowak, Susan Mackay Smith, Carol Berg. Fellow Inklings Lesley, Dave, and Rebecca. The Janets, Susie for doing a bang-up job on the Suite, Marne (thanks for the socks!) Shannon Baker, Bill Brock for sharing his wisdom on writing and marketing short fiction... I'm sure I'm forgetting about a million folks. It was fabulous to see you all.

Hilarious speech from Connie Willis. "Your mother in law is ALWAYS coming next week. Write anyway."

Awesome audiences during our workshops, even the one where Lesley and I were pulled in at the last minute and winged it on a few hours of sleep. ("Don't ask me any big questions. Just little, direct ones!" My train of thought was shot by then.)

Those who thanked me after our sessions, complimented Electric Spec, asked interesting questions, hit me up for a chat, or just said hi. The people in our industry makes all the hardship so worth it!

Thanks to both Terri Bischoff and Denise Dietz for approaching this small-time editor and chatting briefly, even for all the smiles and good wishes in the elevator. The camaraderie among writers and editors and agents was amazing. Everyone raved about how friendly and approachable the industry pros were.

As usual, a few writers started their conversations with me by mentioning I've rejected them. Better approach:"I read Electric Spec."

Colorad Gold post mortem

I think a good time was had by all at Colorado Gold this past weekend. Thank you RMFW for organizing such an awesome conference! We Electric Spec Editors particularly appreciate those of you who were brave enough to paticipate in the short story workshop on Friday afternoon. We hope our comments were helpful and we wish you success with your stories. We also appreciate the folks who came to Short Story and Beer Friday night in the bar. We had a rousing discussion of what makes a story good...or not. :)

Thanks, too, to the folks who Focus on Short Fiction on Sunday morning. For those of you who were there (and those who weren't) Editor Betsy reminded us about her First Page Contest here on the blog. Please send the first page of your story to our submissions email: submissions@electricspec.com with "First Page Game" in the subject line and Betsy (and others?) will critique your anonymous first page. For my promised market info, keep reading.

Also on Sunday Betsy and I were pulled in to help on another panel with authors Mario Acevedo and Jeanne Stein, 'The Long and Short of it--Does Size Really Matter?' We were talking about fiction, of course, and I'm not sure we answered the question--What do you think? Is long fiction better or short? :) I mentioned some market info and promised to put it on the blog so here it is:

Regarding Short Fiction Markets; the web has a lot of (too many?) resources.

08 September 2010

more about Colorado Gold

As Editor Dave mentioned earlier...the Electric Spec Editors will be out in force at RMFW's Annual Conference Colorado Gold. In my M.F.A. program we had a discussion last week about writers conferences and how they are great for your writing career. The consensus was: not-huge conferences, like Colorado Gold, are the best because you can mingle with pro authors, editors, and agents and not get lost in the crowd, and they are relatively inexpensive. There may be a few spaces left if you're interested in attending and haven't signed up yet. Otherwise, I definitely recommend considering it next year. It's always in Denver the weekend around September 11. (Yes, this is a sad anniversary, but Colorado Gold pre-dates the tragedy by many years.)

So, anyway, what are we up to at the conference? Well, I'll tell you...
  • Friday afternoon we are all participating in a Short Story Intensive where pre-registered participants receive feedback from editors and other attendees on their 4000-word short stories. (three hours).
  • Friday evening we have Short Story & a Beer a casual workshop held in the lounge where we can do a short reading of published short story, discuss how it works—and maybe how it doesn't—and let the conversation—and drinks—flow from there. And, yes, I do believe this was Editor Betsy's idea.
  • Sunday morning we have Focus on Short Fiction We'll focus on crafting short stories, why some stories make the cut and why some don't, short fiction markets, the growing electronic fiction market, and how to build a career by writing short stories. (one hour)

We hope to see you there! If you see us, please feel free to come up and say hi.

07 September 2010

Huzzah for Hugos!

As many of you know, the 2010 Hugo Awards were announced this weekend at Aussiecon 4.
And the winners are...
  • Best Novel: TIE: The City & The City, China MiĆ©ville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK); The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)
  • Best Novella: “Palimpsest”, Charles Stross (Wireless; Ace, Orbit)
  • Best Novelette: “The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos)
  • Best Short Story: “Bridesicle”, Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!

Read more about it at: www.thehugoawards.org.

Was anyone there? I'd love to read some comments about it...

06 September 2010

Electric Spec @ Colorado Gold

If you've ever wanted to meet the Electric Spec editors live and in person, stop on by the Colorado Gold Conference sponsored by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in Denver this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Bets, Lesley, and I are offering three workshops: Short Story Intensive; Focus on Short Fiction, and (our favorite) Short Story and a Beer. One of the really fun things about these conferences is it gives us a chance to meet some of our writers and readers. We also love helping writers improve their craft and increase the chances of their story being selected by Electric Spec or another magazine.

p.s. You may recognize Bets or me for our Blogger pictures, but Lesley doesn't really look like the Pillars of Creation nebula, so she may be a bit tougher to pic out of the crowd.

01 September 2010

We're Live!

Check out our awesome new issue over at www.electricspec.com! We've got six fabulous stories and a fabulous author interview with Jeanne Stein! Woo hoo!

I do want to take this opportunity to thank authors for contributing. Thank you for sending us your stories. I also want to thank our behind-the-scenes tech people. Thank you for being behind-the-scenes tech people! Thanks, too, to my fellow editors. You rock!

31 August 2010

New Issue and a Little Bit More About "The Devotion Egg"

Check out our new issue! I hope you'll love the new stories as much as I do.

When we started Electric Spec five years ago, the editors debated about whether to throw in some of our own stories. Eventually, we decided the pros outweigh the cons and started Editor's Corner. The price was right because we didn't have to pay ourselves for the story. Also, we tend to like each other's stories, so we thought our readers might like them, too. On the other hand, I still feel a little chagrin when talking about a story in a magazine I edit. After all, it didn't go through the same screening process that the other stories in the issue did.

That being said, I thought I'd write a little bit about "The Devotion Egg" It's kind of an unusual story for me in that I started with a theme idea rather than a plot. I wanted to see how much I could pull apart love from sexual desire. (I know, it's been explored before). I found it really hard starting with a theme because the plot came together really slowly. I ended up doing more drafts of this story than any other I've worked on. At times it was a frustrating process. My first draft didn't really resemble my last draft at all, but I was happy with the way the plot and theme ended up enforcing each other and just how far I was able to take my original idea. If you have questions or comments about the story, post in a comment and I'll respond.

26 August 2010

Coming soon: Fabulous Fiction!

In less than a week, we will be bringing you 6 fabulous new stories in the August 31, 2010 issue of Electric Spec. Author Sam Kepfeld contributed "Salvage Sputnick" with a possible legacy of the space program. Author Simon Kewin contributed an emotional military SF story "Remembrance Day". Author Tony Peak gave us sword-filled monster-laden high fantasy in "The Walls of Yesterday" Author George S. Walker supplied a unique modern-day fantasy "Fees de Dents" set in Africa. Author Matthew Howe contributed the dark tale "Pusher", featuring a protagonist with a unusual power. And finally, Editor David E. Hughes handed in a tale of love(?) in alien cultures with "The Devotion Egg".

Check it out next week!

24 August 2010

Coming soon: Jeanne Stein Interview

We, the Editors of Electric Spec, are very excited about our new issue which comes out one week from today on August 31, 2010! In addition to our excellent fiction, we have an interview with fabulous Urban Fantasy author Jeanne Stein. Of course, Jeanne writes the hugely popular Anna Strong Chronicles. Be sure to check out our new issue where Jeanne discusses topics including how she's achieved success, why we're seeing a resurgence in paranormal/magical worlds, unique twists in Anna's vampire mythology, the relationship between being kick-ass and sexy, and advice for writers.

And, oh yeah, the new Anna Strong novel Chosen also comes out on August 31, 2010. Congratulations, Jeanne! Awesome!

Check out Jeanne's webpage: www.jeannestein.com.

Check out Jeanne's blog with fellow Urban Fantasy author Mario Acevedo: biting-edge.blogspot.com.

22 August 2010

Sci-Fi's Screwed-up Priorities

The popularity of science fiction these days can't be denied. At lest in media form. Look at how many major network TV shows have a sci-fi element to them. Look at the number of movies with sci-fi aspects released in the last few years.

Meanwhile, the sales of science fiction novels and short stories continue to shrink, with a few notable exceptions. For example, the circulation of Asimov's and Analog and been steadily declining for years. Can this contradiction be explained?

I think it can, but it is an explanation many people do not want to hear, especially those who are firmly entrenched in the industry. Science fiction in the written form has become so self-absorbed that it has lost touch with the larger population of readers. The majority of books that get lauded by sci-fi critics and win awards are inaccessible to the average reader. Yes, the world in the sci-fi novel might be original or the science might be detailed, but the plot is not absorbing, the characters are not sympathetic, and/or the style is dry. While the critic or dedicated sci-fi reader might extoll the fact that the book is either different that any book that has come before or is a clever "tribute" to a book that has come before, all of that is lost on a potential larger audience that might watch a sci-fi movie or TV show. Lost or bored, they'll put the book down after the fist chapter and go back to their steady diet of mysteries, thrillers, or even fantasy. Science fiction, they will conclude, lives up to its reputation as being something reserved for eggheads.

I recently joked with some of my friends about how the fiction reviews in Locus were useful: I avoid the books that the reviewers like and read the ones they don't. This is an oversimplification, but it does bring home a point. I've given up on many highly-lauded sci-fi books. Oftentimes, I'm impressed with the ideas but unimpressed with the story. On the other hand, some sci-fi books have gotten an unfairly bad rap because they were simply entertaining, rather than super enlightening.

In rendering this opinion, I realize I open myself to some standard responses, some of which can be downright nasty. For example, those who fail to understand or enjoy a sci-fi book that has received critical acclaim are not considered "sophisticated" sci-fi readers, or else they are just not on the same intellectual level as those who, for example, enjoy reading a twenty-page explanation about how a particular scientific gadget works. "Sorry, we're going to have to kick you out of the egghead group. You belong with the mouth breathers."

My response? Unite, fellow sci-fi mouth breathers! I know I'm not the only one out there who wants a solid story with his science.

17 August 2010

Le Guin on Art and Fiction

I'm rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and she has some particularly interesting things to say in the Introduction:
  • The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.
  • The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words.
  • The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
  • Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage.
  • All fiction is metaphor.
  • ...the truth is a matter of the imagination.

Wow. My mind is blown. Is she saying the entity an artist creates is greater than the individual elements used to create it? Or maybe, art is also like humanity in that human beings are greater than the sum of their atoms/blood cells/neurons? So, art is a metaphor for humanity? Hhm. I'll have to think about this some more.

What do you think she's getting at?

We Electric Spec Editors have been hard at work on the new issue. Will there be art created with words? Check it out on August 31, 2010!

06 August 2010

the promised update

I promised an Electric Spec update by the end of the week, and oops! it got to be the end of the week. So, without further ado... We did have our production meeting, which as usual, involved a fight-to-the-death via maces/quarterstaffs/broadswords/spears over liquor to select the stories. I joust, er, jest. :) But a spirited discussion was had by all (pun intended). All the stories in hold-for-voting could have been published. It came down to issue balance--as we've blogged about before. We want to publish a variety of stories in each issue.

So, anyway, by now, all hold-for-voting authors should be contacted with a yea or nay. Thank you for submitting, we appreciate it.
Check out the new issue coming on August 31, 2010 to e-newstands near you! It promises to be our best issue yet! (And, yes, I always say that.)

Incidentally, this time, we also had a discussion of what makes a story "great". I think a great story has a concentrated story jewel at its core. To illustrate, Connie Willis' story "The Last of the Winnebagos" is about many things, the last of the Winnebagos, the extinction of dogs, the decline of print media, etc., but at its ultimate core, it's about a man who sacrifices his most prized possession/goal to save a human being. Awesome! Does your story have a core?

What do you think makes a story great?

04 August 2010

The Bechdel Test

Did you know Author John Scalzi has an SF movie column over at AMC's filmcritic.com? (Did you know AMC had a film critic site?!) If so, you're way ahead of me, which wouldn't surprise me at all. :)
Anyway, last week Scalzi wrote a very provocative article entitled: Does Your Favorite Sci-fi Movie Do Right by Its Female Characters? in which he applied The Bechdel Test. This test asks three questions:
  1. Are there at least two women characters in the film?
  2. Who talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

Suffice to say, he conclues recent movies do not do too well with this test. Curious, I rushed to apply the test to the last movie I saw: Inception. There are two main female characters and one of them is <...SPOILER ALERT...> dead. Thus, initially, I assumed they never converse, but then I seemed to recall some crazy stuff going on in those dream levels, so I'm not sure... If anyone recalls better, I'd enjoy hearing about it.

Today, Scalzi's article is entitled Pondering Inception's Sequel Odds and Revisiting the Bechdel Test, so I thought I'd get the answer to the question. Alas, I was wrong. It's still an interesting article examining what the Bechdel Tests Fails imply. Hint: men are the perceived SF audience.

So, how do your favorite SF movies stack up? How about your fave fantasies? :)

We will have some announcements about the Electric Spec Aug 31, 2010 issue by the end of this week. Keep sending in those stories!

29 July 2010

Time Travel

We the Editors of Electric Spec have been known to publish a time travel story or two, for example, see Lee Harvey's Assistants by Mark D. West in our last issue. Personally, I find time travel fascinating--the idea, I've never actually tried it myself. :)

Imagine my delight when I came across: Mind Meld: The Tricky Trope of Time Travel at www.sfsignal.com . This article asks SF authors and experts such as Paul Levinson, Gwyneth Jones, Ted Chaing, and Robert Charles Wilson the questions:

  • Why use time travel?
  • What stories have used it well?
Their responses are very interesting.

What do you all think of time travel?

In the meantime, keep sending those stories in, and yes, we will consider time travel ones! :)

25 July 2010

Some Basics.

A lot of our stories are nearly perfect, style-wise. Others, not so much. Here's some issues I found with this month's slush.


  • Everyone gets their own paragraph. Whenever a character speaks or acts, it's safest to give them their very own paragraph. Especially when you're not tagging dialogue often.
  • And while we're on the topic, Structure your paragraphs so they make sense. A paragraph should have an entrance and an exit, almost like a mini story. Sometimes that only takes one sentence. Sometimes it takes ten. But everything in the graph should relate to the same topic. New topic or a new character = new paragraph.
  • Punctuating dialogue. With a regular tag like he said, use a comma. If you're tagging with choreography, it gets its very own sentence. Example: "Breaking comma rules drives me crazy," the editor said. or The editor slammed her hand down on the table. "Breaking comma rules drives me crazy."
  • Use ellipses sparingly...
  • Use a dash when someone gets interrup--
  • Use 2nd person judiciously. The story isn't about me (you), it's about your character. That said, I just saw it done quite effectively. It lent a casual voice to the piece. But it didn't happen much.
  • Subjects and their verbs never get separated by commas. Never. Never. Never.
  • Use mostly good old regular plain Jane subject/verb construction so readers understand what you're trying to tell them. It's a structure they understand.
  • Fragments. I'm biased against verb-only fragments, and I LOATHE them when used in a series of three, using the same verb for repetitive effect. I'll warn you now: it very well could mean an instant reject. (Though, that usage is generally a symptom of poor writing which makes itself known before I ever get to such a series.) I much prefer descriptive fragments containing adjectives and their object.
  • We no longer italicize thoughts at Electric Spec. (of course there are exceptions, depending on the story. We'll do it if it's needed for clarity.) We do italicize stuff like telepathy or other designated dialogue.
  • Please don't indicate italics with a *. Editors have to go in and remove all of them. You're submitting a story for pay. This is a professional endeavor, not an update on Facebook.

All right, I think that's it for now. As of today we've read and accepted/rejected all the stories except for our hold file for our next issue. Keep 'em coming!

23 July 2010

Give Your Characters a Makeover

Sometimes short stories are just fine with little or no descriptions of the characters involved. With novels, you pretty much have to include them, at least for important characters. With either form, a poor character description is the sign of a beginning author. I can't tell you how many stories I've read where the author chose to describe only the hair color, eye color, and clothing of a character in a laundry list sort of way. I admit it is not easy to do well-written character descriptions, but one way to make them better is to elaborate on details using your POV character's thoughts.

Here's an example. The following sounds like a laundry list description that might appear in your first draft--not very exciting:

Dale Hunter wore slacks and a blazer. She was thin and attractive, with wide-set eyes and full, pink lips.

Okay. Pretty bare bones and not too original. But hey, it's your first draft. You got it down on paper. Here's the second draft:

Dale Hunter was dressed in good slacks, a button down shirt, and a blue blazer. She was an athletic, strong looking-woman. Although she was not thin, she was toned. Her face was attractive, with wide-set eyes, and her skin was the color of peach flesh. She wore small gold earrings and only a little makeup. Her lips were full and pink.

Some pretty good details in there, but still a little dry. You don't learn anything about the POV character who is describing Dale Hunter. Here's the real version, from Stephen White's Harm's Way (note he even sneaks in a setting detail):

Dale Hunter was dressed in good slacks that flattered her long legs, a button down guy-type shirt that I would never call a blouse, and a blue blazer with those brass buttons that make it seem all nautical, as though the next thing she was going to do was hop a plane to Martha's Vineyard and spend the weekend with Walter Cronkite on his yacht. She was an athletic, strong looking-woman. Her shoulders and upper legs filled the fabric of her clothing. Although she was not thin, she was toned. I guessed she was a swimmer.

Her face was attractive, with wide-set eyes. In my book, cops should be weathered, but Dale Hunter's skin was the color of peach flesh, and despite Colorado's desert dryness, her complexion was rich and moist. She wore small gold earrings and only a little makeup--maybe a touch of blush and eyeliner. The dominant feature on her face was her lips. They were full and pink, and I couldn't be sure if I detected gloss on them or not.

Much better, huh? Notice that, in all of the above we DON'T get her hair and eye color. Still, you have a good feel for what the character looks like, and perhaps even what she will act like.

Read through your latest story and find your character descriptions. Try removing eye and hair color. Put in something that does double duty describing both the described character and the POV character. It is bound to catch the editor's eye (or at least prevent him from rolling his "deep blue" eyes.)