27 December 2006

Calvin and Hobbes

A funny cartoon for a snowy afternoon: Snowman House of Horror

22 December 2006

Snow Day!

For those of you who don't know, all of the Electric Spec editors are members of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and not too surprisingly, we live in the Rocky Mountains. Thus, we all had a snow day yesterday, Dec.21! Personally, being stuck at home was great! I got a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff done for the next issue of Electric Spec, coming out January 31, 2007.
I also finished a nice draft of that story I'd been pondering (no more Homeland Security!).

I hope everyone else's forced vacation was as nice.

Happy holidays to all!

18 December 2006

Save the Novelists, Put Down Your Remote

Many of you know I'm not much of a television watcher. I spend far more time reading than I do watching. I've realized for some time that I'm among a small minority of Americans, but I didn't quite realize how much of a minority I was. The U.S. Census came out with a statistic that Americans spend around 1,500 hours a year watching T.V. In comparison, Americans spend about 160 hours reading novels. No wonder it is so hard for aspiring novelists to find a market for their book. Maybe if we all made a concentrated effort, we can change the average novel reading time to 161 next year! (Yes, I know, I set my sights high!)

Don't diet--concentrate your story

I've been pondering Betsy's excellent comments of Dec. 13 as I work on a short SF story myself. She said to 'Put your story on a diet'. I agree with the intent of this comment, but IMHO the wording is imprecise. You don't want to just make your story shorter. You need to cut out all the non-vital parts to concentrate or distill the story. Leave ONLY the essence of the story, lose the extra bits.

For example, the short I'm working on involves a woman who uses the Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics to save her family. When I wrote it originally I included this whole thing with Homeland Security (HS). After pondering it for a while, I realized the problem with the story was the HS part was totally superfluous. So, it's back to work for me!

What's the essence of your story? Are there any superfluous bits?

15 December 2006

Gore says 'play a more active role'

CNET posted recently that Gore urges scientists to warn public about global warming at the Dec. 2006
American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco. He makes several excellent points.

I say additionally fiction writers should play a more active role in warning the public about global warming.

What will the world be like in twenty years? fifty years? a hundred years? Show us!

14 December 2006

Political Interference in Science

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a new feature on their website: The A to Z Guide of Political Interference in Science, in which they state scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information. They have data to back up their claims.

This is a particularly sad and disturbing state of affairs.

Apparently some members of the US government believe 'Ignorance is Strength'.

What's next? 'Freedom is Slavery'? 'War is Peace'?

13 December 2006

Put your story on a diet

We just had our production meeting last night and the results are great: Seven wonderful stories to look forward to in January. A couple are from unpublished authors. That's the best email to write as an editor, knowing you're making someone's dream come true.

What kinds of stories did we pick? Several seemed to speak to the times, indirectly: the war, terrorism, race relations. One amusing story contains unwanted guests--maybe we were subconsiously thinking of the upcoming holidays?

Overall, I noticed a theme in our conversation, even about the stories we did pick. They all could be shorter. I've written this here before, but a solid rule during editing is to cut ten percent. (I'm not making it up: Stephen King, for one, said an editor told him that early on and he's always followed the advice--obviously to great advantage.) This exercise belongs in a later revision, when you're quite sure what you're trying to say. Then, search out ways to be concise. Eliminate adverbs and maybe even adjectives. Study your descriptions. What purpose do they serve? Do they propel the plot and character development, or only ground the reader so we're not floating in space? Good descriptions do all three.

You might not make the ten percent, but in general every story needs cutting. The new year is coming; time to trim the fat.

12 December 2006

Nanotech regs

MSNBC reports today the City of Berkeley to regulate nanotechnology.

...and so it begins. No doubt others will follow suit.

I know we need it, but my muse is feeling smushed.

11 December 2006

Moonbase by 2020!

NASA says they'll establish the first premanent human base on the moon by 2020 at the latest. Read all about it on NASA's 'Why The Moon?' (you can also get a poster and other neat stuff!).

What do you think? Should we do this? Would you move to the moon?

09 December 2006

Hope for the Future

Today, I took my daughters to the Integrated Teaching & Learning Laboratory's Design Expo at the University of Colorado. I was impressed. CU's engineering students showed off their stuff, from the trivial to the profound. For example, one student showed us his wave energy simulation, which used the rise and fall of (simulated) ocean waves to generate electricity. He said several larger versions could generate enough electricity to power Portland, Oregon! Maybe there is hope for the future, with students like this coming up with new alternatives to fossil fuels.

My girls, however, preferred the automatic sno-cone maker and the s'more machine--especially the free samples. Hey--as long as it gets them interested in science and engineering, I'm all for it!

08 December 2006

Doh! Deadline passed for winter 2007

We've closed submissions for our winter 2007 issue. Don't worry if you didn't make it, we'll be happy to consider your story for our spring 2007 issue.
The winter 2007 issue will be out on e-newstands on January 31, 2007.
It looks to be excellent (if I do say so myself)!
We have some awesome stories in the mix and an exciting article which I'll blog about when it's a little more developed.

07 December 2006

Water Flow on Mars

The New York Times reported on Dec. 6, 2006, the Strongest Proof Yet of Water Flow on Mars! Photos taken within the last seven years suggest water flow down crater walls!

...Awesome story material!

06 December 2006

"Spec the Halls" Writing Contest

On Mirathon's blog, I found reference to a holiday speculative fiction writing contest. It offers small cash prizes and large kudos. Now, amidst all the card writing, cooking, decorating, socializing, shopping, wrapping, unwrapping, and whatnot, you have the opportunity to do something for yourself by sending in your best speculative short and gaining a bit of recognition. As the guidelines mention, you'll be able to spread "the joy and delight of the spirit of Christmas [by] twisting it to your own ends." Check out the contest guidelines here: "Spec the Halls."

04 December 2006

ElectricSpec deadline looming

The deadline for submissions for the winter 2007 issue of Electric Spec is looming! We will accept submissions only through December 7th, 2006 for our winter 2007 issue. We have some really nice stories so far and it looks like it will be another excellent issue!
Beginning December 8th we will consider submissions for our spring 2007 issue.

Good luck submitters!

30 November 2006

Ancient Astral Computer

According to the Dec. 1, 2006 The Sydney Morning Herald, Scientists decode ancient astral computer! A 2100-year-old device, the Antikythera Mechanism, is a "complex and uncannily accurate astronomical computer"!

CNN also has an article on this:
Ancient astronomical device thrills scholars, including a picture.

This is awesome story material!

Clarion fundraiser

The latest Clarion E-bulletin tells me that The Clarion Foundation and UCSD have joined forces to embark on a substantial fundraising campaign for the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. If you've got some extra $$$$, dig into your wallet and invest in the speculative writers of tomorrow.

29 November 2006

Churchill's words were science fiction

According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 28, 2006,
Churchill's words were science fiction!

Check out how Dr. Richard Toye of Cambridge University finds similarities between Winston Churchill's speeches and earlier works by H.G. Wells.

Happy Birthday

Three children's authors, speculative fiction writers all, have birthdays today: Louisa May Alcott, Madeline L'Engle and C. S. Lewis.

Louisa May Alcott of Little Women, you say? She wrote sensationalized stories about duels and opium addiction and mind control. I haven't read any of them, but I'm interested enough to google around after I get my two thousand words in today.

Remember the loving family in A Wrinkle in Time? L'Engle's parents weren't very interested in her, only each other, so she imagined happy families for herself. What does your life lack that you make up for in your writing? That's your niche--go for it!

And, C.S. Lewis said, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

28 November 2006

Congratulations, Jim!

On Nov. 22, 2006, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America announced James Gunn will be the next Grand Master of Science Fiction. Read their Press Release.

Congratulations, Jim! You rock! :)

I've mentioned him before here. Among many other things, Jim founded The J.Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at The University of Kansas. He also teaches an Online Writers Workshop in Science Fiction through the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

27 November 2006

Butterflies, ski-lift operators, polar bears & hydroelectric planners

What do butterflies, ski-lift operators, polar bears and hydroelectric planners have in common?
According to the Nov. 26, 2006 Washington Post, they're all 'On the Move to Outrun Climate Change'. Read their full coverage on 'The Threat of Climate Change'.
This topic is rife with story ideas!

26 November 2006

Cover Letters

Have you slaved over a cover letter that will get your story noticed by the editors at Electric Spec? Well, don't. We'll read your story unless it is clear from the cover letter that the story does not meet our guidelines. However, I do grow tired of seeing certain things in cover letters that really don't belong there, such as:

1) personal information: age, marital status, number of children, or day job
2) information about the plot of the story (we are going to read it, after all)
3) the phrase, "I've been writing since I was (fill in the blank) years old"
4) requests for comments about the story
5) information about how much you love to write

Please DO include the essentials listed in the Electric Spec submission guidelines, including the name of the story and author in the subject matter line and a word count. A short summary of past publication credits is helpful, but not essential. Be aware that if you include a link to your biographical information, I probably won't go there. I usually don't have time to follow links around.

Here's a sample over a cover letter that would be just dandy:

Dear Electric Spec Editors:

Please consider the attached 4000-word
story, "Hayward the God's Eye Wanderer" for publication in Electric Spec. My
short stories have previously appeared in IGMS, The New Yorker, and Static
Movement. Thanks for your


Edward E. Egglsby

Pretty easy, huh?

21 November 2006

A Higher Standard

The thing about short stories is that they almost always leave us wanting more. They're a snack, not a meal, but the good ones do leave behind a certain satisfaction--a sort of better-to-have-love-and-lost-rather-than-never-loved-at-all feeling.

Does your story begin where it is supposed to? This is a common problem with rough drafts of novels, but I also see a lot of stories that should have started with the narrative on page two. The writer thinks he needs to take the time to introduce me to his world, or he's so enamored of it he thinks I want the four-hour tour, rather than just slipping in references at appropriate moments. In the narrow slice of life provided by a short story, I think it's most effective to throw your reader right into the crisis. But the crisis action must be plot-provoking, evocative of your world, and show me your character in clear terms. Sounds a lot to ask for, eh? Just know that I hold Electric Spec writers under the same constraints I put on myself.

And to make it tougher, I expect that every paragraph of your action/narrative meet those stringent standards. Think of every scene as sitting on a three-legged stool, the legs being plot, setting, and character. If it doesn't touch on each one your writing isn't tight enough for a short story. (A solid recommendation is once you think you're finished, make a goal to cut your word count by ten percent.) I think some scenes in novels can lean a bit, but a short story reader will topple right out of your story without these three elements propping up each scene.

The best short stories are often more about what you don't say.

20 November 2006

So long, Jack :(

As many of you know, Jack Williamson, world-renowned science fiction author and Grand Master, passed away on Friday November 10, 2006 in Portales, New Mexico at the age of 98.
There are a couple nice articles about him in the Portales News-Tribune: 'Williamson considered one of science fiction's greats', and 'Local writer remembered'.
There's a nice audio segment on NPR: 'Science Fiction Writer Jack Williamson Dies at 98'.
There are some nice photos from Nov 16th, 17th Memorial Service at the Eastern New Mexico University, and their news release: 'World-Renowned Science Fiction Writer Jack Williamson Passes Away'.
See also the SFWA obituary, and the
Albuquerque Tribune obituary.

So long, Jack. We'll miss you.

17 November 2006

Electric Spec's Selection Process--Revealed!

I’ve noticed that we have not posted the specifics of our selection process, so here it is. When a story is submitted to our “submissions” address, it is randomly distributed to one of our four editors. The editor reads the stories distributed to him or her. If the editor decides a story is not right for use he/she will send an e-mail to the author saying so. If the editor can’t decide, he or she will pass it on to another editor for a second opinion. Finally, if the editor thinks the story might work for us in the next issue, he or she notifies the author that we will hold the story for voting.

The editors have a production meeting about a month and a half before the next issue comes out. There, we discuss all the stories that have been held for voting. Although the quality of the story is paramount, we also look at how stories will work together in each issue to create variety and balance. After the production meeting, we e-mail the authors and let them know whether we have selected their story for the next issue.

I should mention that the process does not stop there. Our editors actually edit the stories we’ve selected. These edits can rage from very minor revisions to significant ones.

Is there something else you are just dying to know? Just ask and we'll try to address it in this blog.

16 November 2006

Return to the Moon by 2020?

Talk about awesome story ideas! www.space.com had an article yesterday about NASA Weighs U.S. Strategy for Moon Exploration, in which we may return to the moon by 2020. The article includes lots of neat links, including IMAGES: Walking on the Moon in 3D. Actually, all the stuff on www.space.com looks neat. :)

15 November 2006

Hatrack River Writers Workshop

Speaking of Orson Scott Card (Nov 13 entry) and
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury (Nov 9 entry), I should be thorough and mention the Hatrack River Writers Workshop. This is a great resource for speculative fiction writers and includes several discussion areas including a writing class! Enjoy!

14 November 2006

Catastrophic impacts common?

There's an interesting article in The New York Times Science section today: Ancient Crash, Epic Wave , which describes scientists' efforts to find evidence on earth for recent (within the last 10,000 years) asteroid hits. Apparently, some think they've found such evidence and they claim catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.
I guess they used Google Earth for some of their studies.
It sounds like great story material.

13 November 2006

Military Science Fiction Classics

I ran across this listing of military science fiction (MSF) "classics." Although a couple are golden oldies, like First Lensman, many are much younger. Normally, I wouldn't consider work from the 80s and 90s "classic," but hey, MSF didn't evolve into a truly marketable sub-genre until the late 80s, though it was birthed in the 50s. Check out Del Rey's 2001 anthology, The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century, for a great compendium of shorts.

Anyway, MSF happens to be one of my favorites, and it's always interesting to compare older works with those being published today. How the market doth drive readers' tastes!

Wiki has a definition of military science fiction that I would agree with except for the interplanetary/interstellar conflict part. I think MSF can occur at a global level too without bringing in star systems or galaxies. Anyone else have an opinion?

If I compiled a MSF reading list, it would have to include Herbert's Dune (yes, that could be considered sociological too), Heinlein's Starship Troopers (Casper Van Dien's and Denise Richards' acting in the movie did NOT improve on the original story so, don't go there), Card's Ender's Game, and Drake's Hammer's Slammers. I'd add in books from Burroughs' Mars series and McCaffrey's Pern series too.

Anyone else have a list of "classic" MSF every other fan should read?

11 November 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Last night I saw the movie Stranger Than Fiction. The "high concept" premise is: "what if a character in a novel starts to hear the author's narrative?" Because of the idea of the movie, it's fun for writers. For example, in one scene, a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) interviews the "character" in the novel (Will Ferrell) and tries to figure out what book he is in. He asks questions like, "Do you have any magical powers?", "On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it that someone is trying to assassinate you?", and "Are you the king of anything—i.e. a hidden land under the floorboards of your house, etc.?" As a writer, the questions made sense to me right away, but they, of course, baffled Will Ferrell's character. If you get a chance, you might want to check this movie out.

09 November 2006

Implications and Consistency Combined with Craft

Author Mark Salow has posted some interesting commentary regarding the futurist perspective in speculative fiction. It's inspiring to find a writer who not only works the craft, but considers the philosophical implications and consistency of his message. I'll have to check out Darwin's Orphans to see if he does all of it well.

So long SF and Fantasy Workshop Newsletter!

An era has come to an end. The long-running SF and Fantasy Workshop Newletter,most recently run by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury published its last issue in October 2006. Kathleen did a great job. The Newsletter was chock full of info for writers of speculative fiction. It's sad to see it go.

For example, the October 2006 issue contained:

  • "SAFER REVISING: by Diana Carolyn Ice
  • "SEVEN TOP WRITING TIPS" by Andrew Rey
  • "THE REVENGE OF MAISY THE TIDYBOT (aka The Gripes of Reading)" by Lynn S. Light
  • "WE ARE NOT ALONE" by Fran Giuffre
  • "WORKSHOP, THE WORKSHOP, AND ME" by Robert Nowall

However, they do plan to post the back issues on the web. I highly recommend them!

08 November 2006

Global Warming is not a theory

OK, this graphic has little to do with speculative fiction; I just thought it was funny. Of course, Lesley Smith and Michael Crichton did write novels about the topic.

06 November 2006

I was inspired by Lesley's last post, and also by the noticeable lack of adverbs. So . . . I was curious about how the rest of Electric Spec's stories would hold up.

Here are the first lines for the first issue:

  • "Open the pod bay doors, Hal . . . Do you read me, Hal? . . . Hello, Hal, do you read me? Do you read me, Hal? . . . Hal, do you read me?"
  • The bedside phone trilled, dragging me though several layers of warm slumber.
  • I sank needle-tipped buckyfibers into the boy's naked chest, connecting the Steel Diagnostician to his metabolic system.
  • "I must go, Mrs. Hansen," said Helen. "I'm late as it is."
  • Looking out through a broad window into the cheerless gray sky of nineteenth century London, I realized I hadn't turned off the simulator last night.
  • Simple things.

And issue number 2 . . .

  • Rhonda Minestra walked into the office, and after shutting the door, grinned and bounced on her toes.
  • Catching God is the tough part.
  • Matirsutrus shone full on the waters of Malibar, his face mournful and pockmarked as he crept along the canals.
  • Edward thought he knew every part of the library, but he was perplexed to find he was wrong.
  • "Small people are tragic," Rain said.
  • Kyril Ague, the only Diplomat Class passenger aboard the starship, hefted his zipbag and stepped out early from the exit valve, hoping to see a standard local reception committee.
  • Ursula sported quite a shiner when she arrived at work bright and early the Monday after her vacation.

Yup, no adverbs. What else do these opening sentences have in common? Very few adjectives, lots of strong verbs (except for stories starting with dialogue), and an element of mystery that draws the reader into the story. They all match the tone for the rest of the story as well, but you'd have to read the story to verify that. Can anyone spot other similarities?

This list also highlights that many approaches work. You can start with setting, dialogue, or character. You can start with complex sentences or short fragments. You can include world-specific words or everyday vocabulary. Lots of choices.

This should not imply that first lines are more important than the rest of the story. I've read first lines that I've loved only to be disappointed later on. A sure rejection. I've also read stories that didn't work well at the beginning but were worth trying to fix because of the rest of the tale.

More short story first lines

I must admit I was curious how the Electric Spec stories stacked up in the first line department. Here's the data from our current issue:

  • Six years Federal Police Force, last two on Homicide.
  • In her cold bedroom chamber, Atana re-read her letter, then pressed the send button on her console.
  • "So what's the crisis?" Duram Karr sighed as he slid into a lounge chair in the VIP Room of the Commander's Club.
  • "Who gives a shit what the surface track is?" asked Kalypso.
  • My hand brushed the shoulder of his jerkin before he twisted away.
  • "Sol, it's time. They're ready to see you now."

I am intrigued. How about you?

05 November 2006

Die, adverbs, die!

Note of personal interest: I recently did an -ly search on my book, a 116,000 word fantasy novel. I'm readying it for submission, and I read the suggestion on an author's website. I've never thought of myself as particularly adverbial, but this exercise proved that theory wrong. My manuscript is now over ONE THOUSAND words shorter, and a better read, I believe. Adverbs tell, not show. Most adverbs signify lazy writing, as Brian says, and as an editor I'm always on the lookout for them. But, as is so common, I missed a great deal of them in my own work. I'd suggest the -ly search and see if it doesn't improve your writing. I think you'll often find they aren't needed at all.

02 November 2006

William Styron: 1925-2006

William Styron passed away yesterday...he was 81. Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose explorations of the darkest corners of the mind were charged by personal demons that nearly drove him to suicide, died in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. He had been in failing health for a long time.

Although he was not a speculative fiction writer, I thought we should mark his passing. I really enjoyed his work, especially Sophie's Choice.

Short story first lines

One of my critique groups has been having a (offline--I know, it's shocking) discussion about best first lines of novels. See, for example, 100 Best First Lines from Novels. (Thanks for the link, Dave!)

Of course, Electric Spec focuses on short stories, so I thought I'd look at some short story first lines. I must admit I cheated and just looked in my 2005 "Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction" Edited by Gardner Dozois with a forward by Robert Silverberg.
Here are some intriguing short story first lines (YOU MUST BUY THIS BOOK. It truly is the best of the best.)

  • There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before.
  • I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night.
  • It all started when Cletus Jefferson asked himself "Why aren't all blind people geniuses?"
  • So the white men are back!
  • Mae lived in the last village in the world to go on line.

What's your idea of a good short story first line? :)

01 November 2006

Good luck NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo folks!

Happy November! November is a big writing month what with
NaNoWriMo:National Novel Writing Month and NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month. I'd enjoy hearing any success (or not!) stories.
Does anyone else wonder why November? Doesn't it interfere with eating turkey? :)
Good luck writers!

31 October 2006

Show me the money!

Quite some time ago, I sold two stories to e-zines. The 'zines stated in their submission guidelines that they paid authors for their work, but I never got a penny. My polite queries about payment went unanswered.

I'm not posting this just to whine (I DO feel better now, thank you), but rather to make a point. As Betsy said in her earlier post, it's sometimes hard to judge the quality of digital magazines. Authors get important services from websites like Duotrope and The Black Hole, but you can never be certain about a magazine's reputation.

Eventually, magazine reputations spread by word of mouth (or word of blog). When fellow writers ask me for suggestions about where to submit their work, I tell them about the 'zines that paid me promptly—and those that didn't.

Monster of the Milky Way

One of my science fiction email groups passed along a plug for NOVA on PBS. Tonight 10/31/06 (check your local listings) they're showing Monster of the Milky Way: Does a supermassive black hole lurk at the center of our galaxy? I hear it may even include quotes from Gregory Benford and David Brin. Enjoy!

30 October 2006

Being a digitally produced magazine, of course we're interested in all things e-pub. I just read this release from Publisher's Lunch about technical standardization of distribution for e-books. There's no little amount of suspicion of electronic methods of distribution among readers and writers, and some of that suspicion revolves around quality. When I sold my first story to an e-zine my non-industry friends and family were curious if it was a real sale, since it was online. Shrug. It was a paid credit, just like a story that appears in Electric Spec. I was happy with the zine, happy with the editing and quality, so I was thrilled with the sale. However, I recently read of a writer who declined a book deal with an e-book publisher. From what I could tell their main crime was being new, though they had verged on the vanity press arena since several of their books had been written by one author, who also happens to be an editor. The ensuing discussion centered mainly on marketing and distribution and retaining rights for print venues, and I think some good points were made. Standardization could alleviate some of these worries, be it books or magazines or music, and it's as much to protect the consumer as the writers and publishers. After all, we don't want our books sent to ten thousand pcs for free, do we?
"Today's announcement heralds the beginning of increased title availability and
lower costs for publishers entering the eBook and digital reading market,"
stated Neil de Young, Hachette Book Group USA...Over forty publishers,
technology companies and organizations were involved in the OCF Working Group,
the committee responsible for the creation of the standard, including Adobe
Systems Inc., Benetech, DAISY Consortium, eBook Technologies Inc., Hachette Book Group, Harlequin, iRex Technologies, Mobipocket (An amazon.com company),
netLibrary, OverDrive Inc., Random House, Simon & Schuster, WGBH and many
How does all this apply to us? Well, I believe in some standardization, even for e-zines, and focusing on distribution is a good start. I think the internet fosters a valuable free-for-all attitude, but when you download a file from Electric Spec, even for free, you've got to know that you're getting what we advertise: a well-written, bug-free, tightly edited story. I think we're achieving that so far, but some of the e-books and e-zines aren't always so stringent. I'd hate for them to put a black mark on the e-publishing industry as a whole, and standards will help the maintain the quality people have come to expect from print zines and books. I'm a firm believer in the power of blogs and e-zines and e-books, as well as more traditional forms of print, because I believe in words and communication. More writing and more reading and more availability can only improve the human condition, and, used wisely, the Internet is a path in the right direction.

28 October 2006

Insights from MileHiCon 38

This weekend is the MileHiCon , the science fiction/fantasy convention for the Rocky Mountain region. Today, I managed to slip away and attend, and I walked away believing it was time and money well spent.

For those of you who haven't been to a "Con" before, it's probably not exactly how you picture it—and certainly not how it is spoofed on The Simpsons. Sure, the hotel lobby features a cast of colorful characters who look like they just walked off the sets of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, but you don't have to slap on pointy ears to attend. I fit in just fine in my jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt.

Three features of the Con impressed me right from the start. First, at any given time there were four or five workshops and author readings going on. They were designed to fit a variety of tastes and interests, but several times I wished I could be two places at once. Second, the quality of the speakers was quite impressive--more on that below. Third, the setting of the workshops was intimate, with most of them having 10 to 20 attendees. This made it easy to hear the presentations and ask questions.

This post would be way too long if I shared everything I learned or found interesting, and so . . . now for the highlights. Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer did a reading from his forthcoming novel Rollback. (It is currently being serialized in Analog and will be released in hardcover by Tor in '07). It was actually more like an "acting" than a reading. Standing in front of the audience with a PDA cupped in one hand, he used voice and gesture to help make the book come alive. Afterwards, he took questions and talked about several interesting topics, some of which I'll probably revisit in later posts.

I also enjoyed the author reading by Daniel Abraham. He he's an up-and-coming author who read from a project he's working on that's coordinated by one of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin. Mr. Martin has created a shared world anthology called the Wildcard series, and Mr. Abraham's work will be featured in a new triad of Wildcard mosaic novels that will be released from Tor beginning next year. After the reading, I'm already hooked. Melinda Snodgrass , another Wildcard collaborator, also revealed in her excellent screenwriting workshop that she and Mr. Martin will be pitching a Wildcard movie. Let's hope Hollywood is interested!

After my positive experience, I'm certainly hoping to attend next year. Maybe it can also be an opportunity to promote Electric Spec. I'm sure a lot of the attendees would enjoy our 'zine.

27 October 2006

Both Sides of the Fence

I finally made time to check out the whole blog thing. I searched for Electric Spec on Blogger and found 15 entries (17 if you count the 2 electrical engineering posts). It's so interesting to see what the writers say about our submission process, the editing of their stories, their feelings about rejections and acceptances, etc. Perhaps every editor should try submitting a few stories to publications; it would provide a clear view into the angst and wonderment of being a writer. I also was going to add, "and every writer should seriously edit a few issues of a publication to learn about the effort involved in such an enterprise," but gee, I scared myself into silence on that one. With all the syntax, punctuation, grammar, and general narrative misadventures submitted by hopeful, well-intentioned writers, who, unfortunately, need more training in mechanics and story development, who knows what the finished pub product would look like? Anyway, as a writer and an editor, I feel fortunate to experience the view from both sides of the fence.

Fun for a Friday

C/O Rashenbo's blog:

The Vampire Novel
Hmm, very interesting! You scored 139!
People are addicted to you, as you make such entertaining and sexy reading material. You get people’s imaginations flowing and make for the type of book people want to read more than once. Cults have been inspired by the likes of you.

26 October 2006

You lookin' at me?

I’m watching lots of History Channel currently, doing world-building research for my new book. It’s all well and good, but when people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them, "From real life." If you haven’t freaked out some stranger lately (or alternatively flattered them) with your attention, then you aren’t people-watching nearly enough. My gym is a great source for characters. People grunt and moan and sweat, all reminiscent of swordplay and farming, if you’re into archaic fantasy. They wear weird attire--lots of dry-fit and special padding and odd shoes and new-fangled jackets. It’s all fodder for thinking of a sci-fi wardrobe with a purpose. I even watch pets, about the closest things to slaves in my world. When a dog is in trouble, does he cower instantly, like a slave scrambling to kneel to his master? Or, does he ignore the screams to “SIT”, like a politician nodding to a constituent? For many writers, once you’ve got a character taking up space in your head, a story is bound to follow. The stories are out there, following us around. You’ve just got to keep looking.

24 October 2006

Uncle Orson's Writing Class

Renata forwarded me an awesome webpage: Uncle Orson's Writing Class, which consists of writing tips and more from the fabulous writer Orson Scott Card. On this webpage he covers tons of stuff from 'Do I need an agent?' to 'Formatting Outlines and Manuscripts'.
There is also a Hatrack River Writers Workshop Forum containing several discussion areas and more. I'd love to hear back about experiences with this.

I personally believe Mr.Card is among the best writers of all time. Right now I'm reading his "Maps in a Mirror", which is excellent! Not only does it contain most (all?) of his short fiction, but it contains the intriguing backstories on the stories, and amazing essays on topics such as what fantasy is and why it speaks to the human condition. Awesome!
And I promise I get no kickbacks of any kind from this endorsement. Really. :)

23 October 2006

The Nerd Factor

I know you love speculative fiction or you probably wouldn't be reading this blog. Have you ever finished a great scifi or fantasy novel or short story and thought, "I bet (insert name here) would love this if I could just get him/her to read it"? But people don't cross the tracks to speculative fiction very easily--even if they read other fiction. Turns out someone did a little experiment along these lines. And the result? Even if people like a particular speculative fiction piece, they're not going to become spec fiction readers. One reason might be . . .

The Nerd Factor

In a recent interview in Locus Magazine, Betsy Wollheim, president of DAW books, said:

We're also striving to make the packaging more sophisticated, although it's hard because we don't want to lose our core readership. But I'm finding that many middle-aged people still want to read fantasy and science fiction -- they just don't want to be seen doing it! So one of the tricks of the trade is to make the books look a little more upscale.

Do you think it's true that people are judged by the cover of the book they're reading? Is that one factors that hurts speculative fiction readership? Maybe spec fiction would sell better if it was displayed behind opaque covers, like Cosmopolitan in my local grocery store.

Welcome to the Dark Side

David wrote about what we’re looking for, and as an editor, I agree with everything he’s said. However, as people, we all have our different slants on what moves us. I love it when an author takes a familiar theme and twists it, like a pizza delivery sign on top of an $80,000 car. I love that feeling of “why didn’t I think of that?” I like when connections are obvious but concealed by my own bias. I love when an author ruthlessly exposes my biases and puts them in a salad spinner with something of his own device.

All stories have to do primarily with protagonists. I’m seeing their world through their filter, so they have to make sense in and of that crazy world. I have a predilection for dark stories and especially for dark characters, which are difficult to make likeable. I’m particularly fond of the anti-hero, who does things in his own, selfish way and saves the world anyway. Think John Constantine. I think the defining factor for a successful anti-hero is cool. I have to admire him even while disagreeing with him.

However, if the protagonist isn’t an anti-hero, then I want him to be strong in his own right. Give me a protag who will fight, who knows his path through the rubble of a broken life, who has his own firm morality. Bottom line: I don’t have to like your protagonist, but I'd better respect him, and I’d better understand why he’s doing what he’s doing up until the last word.

Rules of Writing & Grammar

Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
Avoid cliches like the plague.
Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
Be more or less specific.
Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
No sentence fragments.
Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
One should NEVER generalize.
Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
Don't use no double negatives.
Eschew obfuscation, and ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
One-word sentences? Eliminate.
Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
The passive voice is to be ignored.
Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
Kill all exclamation points!!!
Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
Puns are for children, not groan readers.
Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
Who needs rhetorical questions?
Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
And finally...
Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

(Someone sent this to me without attribution. If anyone knows who wrote it, I'd be happy to give credit where it is do . . . er . . . due).

21 October 2006

First paragraphs

In my last post, I tried to give a general picture of what the editors at Electric Spec were looking for, but I also promised something more specific. Today, I'd like to talk about first paragraphs. I've heard that some agents and editors often reject a piece after reading only the first paragraph. That used to shock me, but no so much anymore. Why? Most of the time, I have a pretty good idea that I'm going to say "no" to a story after the first paragraph or so.

This is not because the first paragraph has to have a "hook" (although a hook can be a big help), but rather it is the author's first chance to exhibit his or her facility with language and story telling. If an author has an awkwardly worded sentence in the first paragraph, then, chances are, I'll find more and more as I go along. Similarly, if I'm lost about the basics of the story after the first paragraph (i.e. who is the protagonist, where is the action taking place, what is the tone of the piece), I'm likely to become even more lost by page 12 (if I make it that far).

If our blog readers would like, I think I and my fellow editors would be willing to look at the first paragraph of a story from a brave volunteer and tell you and the rest of the blogosphere our reactions. Since our blog is pretty new, we might have to wait until we have more readers that know about this opportunity, but, if you're lurking out there and would like to give it a try, let me know.

20 October 2006

Free critiques

First paragraphs are important!
The reason I mentioned online critique groups is critique is an essential part of writing a good story, IMHO. As editors, we would love to do back and forth interactions with authors and help them polish their stories. Unfortunately, time constraints just don't allow this. There are actually a lot of critique options out there in cyberland, some even free. For example, Critters Workshop is a well-known and well-respected on-line workshop/critique group for serious writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I'd love to hear about experiences with Critters Workshop if anyone out there has any. :)
Writing World has a bunch of good articles and links related to critiquing. Again, comments welcome.
There's also Crapometer, a famous blog critique site.
I think at least one of the other editors has tried this. Comments anyone? :)

19 October 2006

Clarion rocks!

Nice post, Dave!
Since you mentioned it, I just wanted to add that the Clarion Workshops are awesome
opportunities for speculative fiction writers. (Although I personally have never been
lucky enough to participate.)
Oh my God! I just saw they now have a Virtual Clarion Workshop!
I might have to sign up! It does look a bit pricey however ($25 for a critique of 7500 word or
less story). If anyone out there has tried it, I'd love to hear about it.
Since I brought up the topic of online workshops, I have to say I took the Online Writers Workshop in Science Fiction taught by James Gunn, Director of the Center for the study of Science Fiction through the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame and it was a good (but tough!) experience.

What do we want?

Electric Spec wants well-written short stories in the speculative fiction genre. But what does “well-written” mean? I thought Kate Wilhelm described it well in her book Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop when she said:

A successful short story is a marvel of compression, nuisance, inference and suggestion. If the novel invites one to enter another world, the short story
invites one to peer through a peephole into the world, and yet the world has to
have the same reality as in a novel. It truly is the universe in a grain of
sand. This is done by compression and implication. Every single word has to help
the story, or it hurts it. The short story is the least forgiving form of
narrative fiction, with no room for redundancies, for backing up to explain what
was meant before, for auctorial intrusions that may be perfectly allowable in
the novel.

Does every author we end up publishing accomplish this? No, but they’re much closer than the ones we reject. We also try to get them closer to this standard through the editing process. There have been a number of times where I’ve cut words from stories where extra words “hurt” the story. I realize this guidance is still pretty general. In later posts, I'll try to be more specific, and maybe my co-editors will want to chime in as well.

Why didn't you pick MY story?

All of the editors at e-spec are also writers and we've suffered our share of rejections. It would be really great if the rejection notices we got from editors identified why our stories were rejected, but it rarely happens. However, being on the other side of the table, its easier to see why, as authors, we don't get the personal attention we'd like. Even being a relatively small magazine, we get a lot of submissions. Unlike some other magazines that are out there, we're pretty good about reading your whole story--not just your bio and the first few paragraphs. So, it takes time just to read and reply to submission. If we included a critique with each one, we'd fall hopelessly behind. We strive for a quick turn-around time.

So, while, in most instances, we can't tell you why we rejected your particular story, we can share common reasons for rejection. Here are a few of the major reasons, and maybe some of my co-editors will want to add to the list:

1) We've seen it before. We get quite a few submissions from people who do not seem to be familiar with the genre they are writing in. So, the plots of many of the stories we get don't hold our interest because we've seen the same or similar terminate before. Sometimes, we get stories that are hard to put in the rejection pile because they are really well-written, but they're just not unique enough to make the cut.

2) We saw it coming. Most of us are not opposed to an "O'Henry" twist at the end of a story. That being said, it is very hard to pull one of these off. Many of the stories with twist endings have twists that have been done before (see #1 above) or the whole story seems like a set-up for the twist ending. Even if the ending is really good, the rest of the story better be engaging, too, or it probably will not make the cut.

3) We didn't see it coming, but we should have. We get a number of stories are good up until that last line. These are stories where the ending is just not satisfying. This is not to say that every ending needs to be a twist (see #2), tied up in a neat little bow, or happy. However, we don't want to feel like we've been left hanging, the plot has not been resolved to a reasonable degree, or we don't know why we just read the story.

4) Poor writing. This one is a bit tricky to talk about because it is hard to define. We're not talking about grammar and spelling (which is important, but not usually the problem). Instead, we're talking about the tools writers use to make a story engaging. Even with a great plot idea, you need to be able to set it out in a way that pulls the reader in. Common traits that could go in the "poor writing" category include: Too much detail not important to the story, too little detail about the characters or setting, too much narrative (i.e. telling rather than showing), writing that is vague or confusing, too many adverbs, too many exclamation points, unrealistic dialogue, not enough dialogue, poor character descriptions, too much backstory, and flat or trope characters.

Given all this, we'll probably need to post something about what we do like in a story. That will be upcoming.