31 December 2008

Deadline looming & article

This is a friendly reminder that the story deadline for our first 2009 issue (Feb 28) is looming: January 5 midnight U.S. MST. Get those stories in!

I came across a neat article Small World: Writing in the Internet Age by Stuart Neville, one of our Electric Spec authors, who has a big new book deal. (Congrats Stuart!) Check out what he has to say about opportunities, marketing, and other aspects of writing in the internet age.

Happy New Year!

24 December 2008

Writing Reading: From Dead to Worse

I can be kind of slow when it comes to discovering new authors. I'm embarrassed to admit, I'd never heard of Charlaine Harris until I watched True Blood on HBO.
I'll wait while you all catch your breath from laughing...

Are you back? Okay.
I didn't start reading the Southern Vampire Mysteries until the HBO series was over (trying to avoid spoilers--that thing about Sam the bar owner was quite a shock, wasn't it?) Anyway, I've devoured all of the SVMs since then, including the latest book 8: From Dead to Worse. From Dead to Worse is quintessential SVM. There are two big Supe showdowns, lots of danger, pluckiness and angst for Sookie, and an excellent surprise at the end. You may notice I'm not being too specific because I don't want to spoil it for you. The gist here is this book is excellent; there's excellent characterization, excellent plotting, excellent setting, excellent you-name-it. Read it!

Ms. Harris may well be my new favorite author.

Finding a wonderful new author is one of the best gifts of all.

Happy holidays, everyone! Best wishes for 2009!

23 December 2008

Cover letters: why bother?

In my most recent trip through the slush pile, I was surprised to see so many submissions that didn't meet our requirements. I don't think it is unreasonable for Electric Spec to ask for some basics along with a story submission--like title, word count, and a short cover letter. When I get a blank e-mail, or even an e-mail that says only "Please consider the attached story," I'm attempted to reject the story outright for failure to follow our guidelines. In fact, if we start getting even more submissions than our current rate, I might just do so. Why? First, I'm hesitant to even open an attachment if I'm not clear on what it is. A blank e-mail isn't comforting. Second, we generally include the first name of the author and the name of the story in our submission responses, even if they are rejections. Sometimes I don't remember the title of the story or the first name of the author (e-mails don't always match) when I'm responding. I don't want to reopen the attachment to do that. Finally, if I have a word count up front, I have a better idea about how much time it will take me to consider the submission. Also, a missing word count makes me wonder if the story exceeds our guidelines. (Call me paranoid, but I've seen authors try to do this). 

I'm an author myself, and I know that it can be frustrating to send out so many submissions only to see a pile of rejections. But what I can't understand is why an author wouldn't take the time to write a three sentence cover letter along with his or her labor of love. It takes two minutes (max) and it gives you a little edge over those who don't bother.

22 December 2008


I've gotten a couple of Read-Only files lately. Frustrating. For one, it indicates a lack of trust and professionalism (akin to noting copyright on your manuscripts.) But mostly, I read stories with my fingers on my keyboard. I often make little fixes and word switches, insert punctuation. In other words, I edit stories as I read. It keeps me engaged and lets me explore the amount of work a story will take to bring it to publication. I don't save these edits, but it's my little quirk as an editor. I do this more intensively during our voting process.

Plus, if we do take the story, you're going to have to send me another file before I can edit it. In my experience, those exchanges take a few days to complete and can set me off-schedule.

Indulge me in this. Send us regular .rtfs please. We aren't interested in stealing stories; we're interested in buying them.

19 December 2008

First Page Entry

Getting Noticed

All my life I'd known this was coming. That one day I'd hold this piece of paper in my hands. I hadn't known how badly I'd wanted it to be much, much later. I eased the thick paper back into the official black envelope and placed it on the console table. Blinking rapidly to keep tears at bay, I placed a finger and thumb on either side and squared it neatly in the centre of the slippery walnut surface.

I snatched my keys from the ethnic clay dish, a souvenir from my sister's endless travels, and stepped back into my routine. I took my normal drive to work, feeling less pleased with my choice of summery white gypsy skirt and blue blouse than I had been. I wished I'd dressed more sombrely.

In the office I collected a plastic cup of almost hot water from the dispenser and took it to my desk. It was quieter than I'd expected. When I sat down, I realised that I wouldn't be able to concentrate much. I only had three months left and all the things on my to-do list seemed pointless. I wondered why I'd spent so many years doing them.

Carole was next in. She sat down on the other side of the grey partition wall in a clatter of bracelets. Reaching behind her monitor to start her computer, she looked at me and smiled. "Hey, I got my notice this weekend. Feels a bit weird. What did you do?"

"Me too," I smiled back and my face felt like it didn't belong to me.

"What are you going to do? I know it's not something to make a fuss about but a couple of my friends got theirs too and we thought we'd have a party. A bit of a send off." Carol turned her eyes to her screen and tugged at a lock of dark hair at the back of her neck. She'd just had it highlighted.

"That's a nice idea." I said. "Quite a few people I know have had their notice recently and I didn't get to say goodbye."

"Does it seem to you that it's getting earlier?"

"My parents were both in their sixties when they went. I guess I always thought I'd have so much longer."

The office was busier now. John came up to us, swinging a plastic drinks tray. "Who's on notice?" he said, "I got mine Saturday."

For the most part, I think the writing is quite sound. Its direct simplicity appeals to me, and the duplicity of the title intrigues me, especially since it's so quickly tied in. Some of the word choices confuse me, such as "ethnic", mostly for their lack of specificity. There also was a line early on which I had to read a couple of times. But helping a writer choose a more perfect word or sentence structure in a near-perfect story is part of an editor's job. What we look for, if we really like the story, is easily fixable issues.

I would tag all dialogue this early on. This isn't because I lost track of who was speaking, but just to get names and characteristics entrenched in readers' heads. Also, I don't know the narrator's name. The simple solution is to insert it into dialogue.

As for content, the "notice" strikes me like winning the "Lottery" did in The Island, in which clones were harvested for organs. Or perhaps they're headed off-world? In the hands of a lesser writer, not knowing almost immediately would frustrate me, but this writer has integrated the "secret" so seamlessly into the plot, I don't mind. Caveat though, I'd mind if it lasted the entire story. That's a plot device that's overdone and out of style.

Based on what I see here, I'd definitely read on.

15 December 2008

first Page Entry

I've lost count by now, but I still have a few in the queue. Thanks for those who have played along with us. I've seen some minor publicity on various blogs, so thanks for that and keep 'em coming. I'll keep playing until we run out. And now for the latest...

Like Icarus on Lustrous Wings

“Captain, District is on the line for you. Urgent orders, Sir.”

The message came to me from Combat Information Center, and yes, “Combat” is a joke on a satellite tender. Unlike the beauties of the Royal Fleet, out practicing their war games, our tender was little more than a janitor ship. To us, urgent orders meant that a recreational pilot had probably bumped a private corporation's satellite out of orbit or knocked off a transceiver.

I left the bridge, where I was observing my deck crew replacing a gold-foil sheet on a nav satellite’s solar panel, and headed below to receive the call in my cabin.

“Captain Hurd,” I said into the handset.

A voice said, “Please hold for the Admiral, Captain.”

Then, an older man’s voice came through. “Hurd, Admiral Asanzy.”

Asanzy headed up District command out of Station Loy. Loy was over seventy years old, the oldest space station still in service--no new gear for this under-funded and over-worked Orbit Guard.

“Go ahead, Admiral.”

Asanzy said, “We have intelligence that a Neoplastian tug is en route. We expect it to cross into our air-space in the next twenty-four hours. I need you to intercept and detain.”

“You sure we’re the best resource for that, Admiral?”

Not really a lot to say on this one. Using a very serviceable writing style, the author sets the scene, jumps into action, and we have what I think must be the story problem--an under-equiped maintenance ship going up against a baddie of some sort. I caught on to the unfamiliar lingo via the narrative. No idea what a Neoplatian tug actually is, but hopefully we'll find out quickly. I'm assuming it's bad, though by the Captain's reaction, it might not be too bad. It might be nice to have an internal right before that laast line of dialogue to clue the reader into tension levels. Or, maybe the guy is ho-hum about it at first and then finds himself in doo-doo. That might work in a novel, and it might even work here, but it can be risky gambit in the short form where tension is paramount.

Even so, I would definitely read on.

12 December 2008

First Page Entry

Listening to the Wind

The wind came from the north with a dark whisper, carrying a wild scent, fecund and raw. Ahnah listened and she watched. But the icy landscape of the Far Northern Reaches was bare of movement, empty of sound save for the wind.

The Spirit Lights flittered across the northern sky in an arching veil of red. Red sky; bad omen, Grandfather used to say.

She cast her mind out. The wolves were moving in from the south, drawn by the scent of fresh meat. Sanglak would need to set extra guards on the sleds. The three white ice bears would feed the village for an entire moon cycle; they couldn't afford to lose them.

Behind her, the ten hunters slept in the tent. They'd run hard all day, pushing the sleds, but were still three days from the village. Ahnah was uneasy. Killing the mother bear and its cub had angered the spirits. All day Ahnah had watched the clouds piling up into towering, forbidding demeanors. She opened her mouth to taste the wind. Tlamo--large wet flakes of snow--would fall soon. It would make for treacherous footing. Time to wake the others.

This makes for some beautiful scene setting, and if this reader has borrowed from Alaska for world-building, I'm cool with that. But, I don't really know if we're in another world or if we're actually in Alaska. From an editorial point of view, this is a problem because we're a speculative fiction magazine. I'm not going to waste my time on stories with no speculative elements--and so far none have turned up. This has a mainstream feel, and we just aren't going to buy mainstream fiction. That said, speculative elements turning up on the first page is more bonus than requirement. But as I read on, spec elements taking their time to appear becomes a bit of a ding against the story.

Speaking of first pages, however, :) as I do this game, I'm realizing how militant I'm getting about the story problem turning up within the first 200-300 words in a short story. Now, I'm sure there are great stories where this doesn't happen (feel free to point them out to me in comments if you like) but online fiction has a lot of competition out there for readers' attention. Consider the blog posts you read. Likely you prefer them to get to the point so you know whether it interests you or not. While conciseness is always important in the short form, my feeling is that nowhere is it more important than in stories that appear online.
That might be just my bent, and we certainly have published great long stories, some of them in the current issue.

But right now, all I've got is the first page. From this, the problem appears to be "getting home with meat for winter against natural odds."

My problem with this story, er, problem--if this is the premise-- is that nature doesn't really make such a great antagonist. Nature can provide obstacles for your protagonist, really good obstacles, but nature can rarely provide the kind of conflict and tension that sentient being v. sentient being can provide.

Of course, if this is speculative fiction, anything could happen here, anything at all. The wolves could be intelligent. Conflict could appear between Ahnah and her hunting party. The red lights could be from alien ships. She could be a time traveling anthropologist. See? Anything. So, since the writing feels competent, I would read on.

09 December 2008

Deadline for next issue posted

As I put on the homepage, our next Electric Spec issue will be published February 28, 2009. The submission deadline for stories for that issue will be January 5, 2009, midnight U.S. MDT. Stories received after that date/time will be considered for our next issue (probably June 30, 2009).

Keep sending us those stories! Thanks!

07 December 2008

Tips for Snips

How do you make a short story "tight"? How do you keep in the bits you need and cut out the bits you don't? It's not as easy as it seems, but here's a few ideas on places where it is often a good idea to cut.

  1. Non-action actions. Watch out for boring verbs that slow both the action and the story. Examples: paused, waited, watched, listened, looked, thought (in the context of just "thinking" as opposed to relaying the actual thoughts), considered (same), contemplated (same). I bet you can come up with more.
  2. Meaningless time descriptors. Do these really add anything? "For a moment," "for awhile," "for some time," "for a beat," "for what seemed like forever," "endless/endlessly," "interminable." Often number 1 above is combined with number two. "He waited for some time" or "he paused for a moment."
  3. Actions that are too detailed. In my critique group we call this "walking the dog." Unless the minute details are important, write "I took the dog for a walk" rather than "I got out the leash. I put it on the dog. I opened the front door. I closed the door behind me. I started walking." Etc. What actions can your reader infer so that he can get to the meat of your story? Even the simple flip of a switch by a character can slow things down if you don't need it. 
  4. Double-dipping. Once you describe something in detail, don't do it again. You can use a keyword to remind the reader--i.e. "the glowing orb," but otherwise assume the reader got it the first time.

03 December 2008

First Page Entry

Just got a few more today, so the game continues...

Tina stepped gingerly out of her shower and into the automatic dryer where jets of hot air also dried off her long, auburn hair to their natural curl. The atomizer added both a body spray and deodorant, further soothing her stressed and bone tired soul. It contributed to a not unexpected drowsiness after three weeks of intensive duties as border rider in Orloman, her small country's western reaches.

That time aboard her steed, a spirited female Dacer which she'd named Frida, an 18-hand, four-legged beast best described as a wonderful cross between an ancient equine and a Mandosarian water walker, while uneventful, was nonetheless draining from the onset of an early winter. During her duty rotation, she had had nothing for food but field rations, washed down by sips from flagons of Bersalean fortified red mead. Her mostly gentle mount was content with Chilicoot grass and the brackish water so abundant... until it froze.

For the last two days, after the mead was gone, she'd used the portable heating/filtration system to prepare water for herself and Frida.

With nowhere to sleep on the frozen ground, she had dozed fitfully in the saddle, while her steed caught some shuteye, from the light of dawn to early afternoon.

On the face of it, there's nothing overtly wrong with the writing. A few minor things tripped me up, nothing that a detailed edit couldn't fix. I do, though, notice the adjectives and adverbs: 30 or so. Out of 200 words that's 15% and sometimes they seem to replace weak verbs or almost repeat the idea best expressed by the verb--dozed fitfully, for example. Some of the more specific modifiers really work for the story, though, like the description of the Dacer. The rest--like long, auburn hair and not unexpected seem to bog it down.

As this is basically a tired someone getting out of the shower leading into backstory, this writer might consider using front page real estate more effectively by cutting modifiers (leaving more room for important ideas expressed by way of nouns and mostly verbs-action) and maybe even cutting this scene in order to get to the problem and to better show off your character. Remember, we're meeting your protag for the first time. I don't learn much about her or her situation but that she's tired from border riding and that she's got long, auburn hair.

However, I'm curious about several juxtapositions: the ordinary name Tina which indicates we're on Earth, dealing with an Earthling, or a descendant thereof; the shower, automatic dryer, and atomizer indicates some level of technology; that she rides a Dacer (creative to come up with a new animal!) in her job as a border rider (I'm guessing that's some sort of guard); the ancient equine (indicating we're in the future); "field rations" maybe a military mindset?; the wine lending an air of medievalesque fantasy, which I enjoy. These elements combine to make me want to read on. But frankly, if I had to continue to wade through unnecessary modifiers, I'd probably reject it.

A note: this is my subjective style thing. My personal style is pretty plain. As I grow as a reader and a writer, my preferences lean toward plainer writing. This doesn't mean all modifiers are wrong or that I never use or appreciate them. But to me they must be essential. Other editors may not feel the same way.

Thanks for having the guts to put your stuff out there! I hope this game is helping writers learn and think more about short story writing.

Feel free to comment in the thread. Discussions, and especially disagreements, are the best way to learn even more.

02 December 2008

Writing on Reading: Litany of the Long Sun

Don't you love it when you find a new book to love? Last week I plowed through Gene Wolfe's Litany of the Long Sun (which is actually the first half of a longer novel called The Book of the Long Sun.) I had not picked up a Wolfe novel before because I was not crazy about his Nebula and Locus award-winning story, "The Death of Dr. Island." Now I'm sure glad I gave him another chance. Litany is science fiction that in many ways reads more like a fantasy. It takes place in a single world where advanced technology is more of a valued relic than a commodity. The protagonist is a parish priest who, up to the events in the story, lived a very simple and rudimentary life. The priest in an incredibly likable character who struggles through moral dilemmas and physical threats in a way that is both admirable and believable. As the plot unfolds, Wolfe makes surprising connections between events and reveals the secrets of the world. He is a master of foreshadowing and of taking seemingly insignificant events and making them huge.

As it turns out, Wolfe is a prolific writer. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of his books as soon as I can get my hands on them.

01 December 2008

aaaand another...


Cameron tapped out a few more words and then paused to adjust the beam. He chose a large bold font for the header: Conclusion. He took a deep breath and then tapped the next two paragraphs without pause.

Done. He turned off the beam and leaned foward onto the desk, resting his forehead on his interlocked hands. It was another half an hour before he could leave: not enough time to start up anything new but too much time to sit staring at his desk. George walking into his office was almost a relief.

"Check this out, you'll love it," he said, pulling over a chair and sitting next to his desk. Cameron's relief at the distraction was shortlived as the white wall was covered with young barely clad girls twisting and gyrating in tandem. BGK was pretty liberal as far as big
business went but this definitely was beyond the occasional personal use of the net that might get ignored.

"The hell, George?" Cameron stood and waved his hand to cancel the scene.

"Wait, look. It's approved." Sure enough, it had a green tick in the corner, marking it as approved for standard office access. "There's no text so nothing for the admins to spot." George licked his lips. "S'long as everyone keeps it quiet, we can have a wee look when we're stuck at work." One small blonde girl, with big, blue, innocent eyes that made
Cameron feel dirty even looking from afar, shook her shoulders and then minced her way off to the side.

"See that?" George beamed. "Someone's just paid for some one-on-one attention. She's gone off to a private cam. It's real girls, doing real dances. Isn't that hot?"

"Yeah, hot." Cameron began packing up his stuff. By the time he got rid of George, it'd be time to go.

"Check it out, Cam. How can you resist?" His face was flushed.

Cameron realised that he'd been specifically targetted as having the biggest white space. "Did you get those figures from the Kaymar project?" Usually the fastest way to shut George up was to mention work but he was too busy leering at the pixels on the wall.

"Yeah, uh, 50 year return, sociographically sound, one environmentalist worried about some worms, don't think it'll be a biggie." He rattled off the data without bothering to look away from the screen.

There are some issues. Everyone should get their own paragraph, for one. Tag all dialogue with names early on so we stupid readers can keep track of the characters we've just met. Compound sentences separated by a conjunction need a comma. "Beam" threw me, but I was willing to go with it because I'm hoping its a speculative element. "White space" also threw me--why not say "white screen" or "white wall"? Also, that's classic passive structure. Switch that around to say something more like: Cameron realized George had specifically targeted him because his big white wall made a perfect spot to project the dancers. That's still rough, but you get what I'm trying to do.

In general, I like this. There's tension between the two players and Cam being slightly victimized by his lurid coworker helps with the sympathy factor. I'm guessing by the title that the Kaymar project will be the story problem, and since I have no idea what "worms" means (Like DUNE-sized or the intestinal variety or what?) (And, btw, it's a GOOD thing that I'm wondering.)

If they're as different as I suspect, then the story relies on speculative elements, so that's a major plus. I'm curious enough to keep reading.

28 November 2008

Another Entry

Our American readership get enough to eat? Well, loosen your belt and set a spell, cuz we got ourselves another entry...

Jun Kawasaki's Dead Girlfriend

Unlike current-gen hentai girls, Saigon Sweet, version 1.0, hadn't been created for sexual gratification. In fact, her programming had, for the most part, consisted of emotion-based relationship features.

Share this tidbit with a member of the general public and they would most likely express surprise that Saigon Sweet, the wonderful bedroom companion for the everyman, busyman and just-became-a-man (or so her marketing slogan goes) once was more best friend than bed friend.

Attempt to enlighten a Saigon Sweet fanboy with the same piece of information and he'd roll his eyes at your audacity to impart well-known, historical S-squared knowledge to a devotee, then, with a knowing smirk, divulge the true origins of the hentai girl lay not
with Ryuu Nakamura but Jun Kawasaki.

Thoroughly distraught after his girlfriend died in a car crash during a native land visit to Japan, Jun Kawasaki, a twenty year old University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mechanical engineering major, vowed to exact the most cruel and unusual punishment he could imagineupon himself.

And he had more than enough reason; he had been operating the vehicle at the time of the crash. However, Jun Kawasaki's guilt was less aboutdriver error and more about the last act his girlfriend had committed just before her death: fellatio.

This is another Sex In The New Millennium piece, of which I see a regularly. As I said before, though, that's not a bad thing. Just know that your piece must be pretty original to stand out above the others.

At first impression, I would suggest this writer streamline the style. These sentences are overwritten. I had to read some of them twice. (Granted, I'm moving slow as a slug after this last round of leftovers.)

Two points on overwriting. Remember, I'm new to your world and already on shaky ground. Make it as easy as possible for me to get caught up. These ideas are not complicated, so I'm wondering why I have to work so hard to get at them. Also, lengthy, involved writing feels self-important when the idea could be expressed in simpler terms. (And it almost always can be expressed in simpler terms. This is fiction, not brain surgery.) Ditto, second person usage. I mostly can't stand that in fiction. Suddenly the author is lecturing me. Listen, I got a mother already. She's even visiting right now, so I really don't need some author to tell me what for. (I'm kidding.) (Mostly. My mom actually is here. Hi Mom!)

For example,

Attempt to enlighten a Saigon Sweet fanboy with the same piece of information and he'd roll his eyes at your audacity to impart well-known, historical S-squared knowledge to a devotee, then, with a knowing smirk, divulge the true origins of the hentai girl lay not with Ryuu Nakamura but Jun Kawasaki.

could be:

Any Saigon Sweet fanboy knew the origins of the hentai girl lay not with Ryuu Nakamura, but Jun Kawasaki.

Y'all remember diagramming sentences? No? Youth is wasted on the young. Anyway, you should be able to diagram your own sentences. If you can't, then simplify them. And, since you're now looking for words to cut, watch out for qualifiers, like "in fact," and adverbs like "thoroughly." These clutter words bury the strong verb usage. Let the verb carry the sentence.

I really like the lingo: S-squared, Saigon Sweet, fanboy, and hentai girl, especially in juxtaposition with the Chicago reference (I grew up there) . Dropping lingo and slang like that makes me feel like I'm entering a different world filled with interesting things and concepts. BUT, I've got no idea what this story is about, because these graphs are backstory. Who's the protag and what is their problem? If I don't find it in the first two hundred words, then I should at least have the idea that it's coming. Like. Very. Soon.

This would probably earn a second page cuz I like sexual robotics as well as anybody, but unless the style streamlined or the premise was really creative and different, I'd pass.

Thanks for playing! Remember, tell your friends. Heck, tell your enemies! Lets rev this up!

25 November 2008

Writing on Reading: The Ant King and Other Stories

I picked up The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum on the web. The author released the book under a creative commons license through Small Beer Press. Rosenbaum is a talented short story writer whose speculative stories reflect a postmodern/surreal style similar to slipstream author (and Small Beer Press co-founder) Kelly Link. While not all of Rosenbaum's stories resonated with me, I found many of them enjoyable and interesting. For example, the title story, "The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale" is packed with an entertaining variety of characters and events that keeps you guessing until the end. It also includes some interesting commentaries on various trends in modern society. 

I recommend The Ant King and Other Stories to those who like off-beat urban fantasy and those who wish to study well-crafted short stories. 

24 November 2008

entry #3

Number Three!

*In the late 20th century came the internet. From the internet was born
"Chat." And Chat led to cybering, to online sex between parties who sat at
home in their comfortable chairs and typed reciprocal erotica and porn to
each other on their computers.*

*In the early 21st century Chat became virtual reality. Chatters plugged
directly into their HEVE--home electronic video entertainment
interface--created characters from the data streams, and inhabited virtual
bodies in a virtual world. The online sex was better. Sometimes when
people were locked virtual skin to virtual skin they could almost forget
that they weren't actually exchanging bodily fluids.*

*By the mid 21st century mundane reality was still boring, but virtual
reality was no longer good enough. *

--- from "Sex: The New Story of an Old Act."

There were two vampires, a shapeshifter in semi-human form, a sword-witch, a
demon named Baell, and a dozen sluts of various persuasions and genders on
the battlements when Boone came on. And the low sky was like ice from the
vac-shield, a half solid, shifting weave of thin light that kept black space
away from the surface of the Sea of Tranquility.

Just a mention on formatting. Some people use * to designate italics. I had a rant on my failing vision and exhaustion all prepared, but in the interest of saving time: which is easier for you to see?
*Italics* or Italics? Might be email formatting in this case, but I do see it in regular submissions.

With the quote, you've just started a story with what is essentially backstory. I think this history/set up could be relatively easy to show via action, and you want to start a story where the story starts. Savvy? Additionally, the writing in the excerpt and the setting premise are not quite special enough to grab me. I see various forms of internet/future sex in stories fairly often. I'm not saying don't use it, though, because those stories can be interesting.

If the story is well-done and makes it past the vote, I'd probably ditch the quote in editing. Problem is, during voting we tend to pick the stories that: A. are so great we don't care how much work they require, or, even better, B. are great and also need the least amount of work. (We're editors. We're lazy. Just ask Gremlin.)

Things do take a turn for the better once the story proper starts. We got a fun cast of characters and setting details: a guy named Boone (which, since he's named, I'm assuming is the MC) and they're on battlements. Cool. Maybe they're under siege or at war, so it sets up conflict. I like the "dozen sluts of various persuasions" because it feels a bit like a slur, and that shows me Boone's bent. Not sure why the next sentence starts with a conjunction. It doesn't seem connected to the previous, though the details are interesting and reinforces the futuristic sci-fi. I don't have an entirely clear picture of the surroundings, but in the first graph, that's okay. This author also shows he might be able to write in this graph, undoing the damage done with the quote. I'm willing to read on to find out more.

To show you I'm not damning all quotes: my latest short story starts with a short quote from Roman times. But see my issue with the quote? It takes up a lot of real estate, so it must really count. I don't believe that's the case for this one.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I only read the first page of submissions. I tend to read 3 pages. If it's promising, I skip to the end to see how that works before reading on. (It's not entirely true. Occasionally I read all the way through--forgetting my method--and that bodes well for a story. I will advocate that story.) But I know for a fact that many editors do only read the first page. Some book editors and agents only read the first page. So the first page is important stuff, yo.

I've got more entries, but I'm out of town for a few days, so I'll do another when I return. More pages please! Talk this up!

19 November 2008

entry #2

Thanks for all the great entries and keep 'em coming! And now, for our second victim brave participant.


Confidently spinning a massive, double-bladed broadaxe along its hardwood handle axis, the Stradix warrior strode toward its quarry, a seeming rotund, little man squatting beside a shallow brook in the rocky terrain, filling his water flask. Moving surprisingly quickly and quietly for one of such incredible bulk, it swiftly swung the weapon over its head and delivered the blow with so much force the blade cleaved through the small man's skull and all the way down his body, to lodge itself in the hip bone.

Expecting a gushing torrent of blood and guts, the warrior could only stare, stupefied, as the parts of the man it had just struck a dead blow on fused back together, in a flash of emerald light, killing the self-satisfied smirk on its hideous face.

Its fingers let go of the axe, and the victim was whole again before the strike was completed.

The crouching man turned slowly to face his attacker, calmly picked up the would-be killer's axe where it had clattered to the ground, and quickly sliced through his enemy's knees with a fore swing, and as the creature rocked on the bleeding stubs where its feet had been, the last thing it saw was the arcing swing of the blade just before the back swing sliced through its neck, killing it instantly.

First, a word on genre. If you'll notice, our sword & sorcery tends to have some overarching theme. It makes a statement -- something well illustrated by the S&S genre. Now I like me some magic and swords (as Lesley will no doubt point out, I like them wielded by hot, bare-chested guys). However, Electric Spec might not be the best market for your basic, all-action, no theme S&S. (It's too early to judge theme is in this piece, so that's a statement on genre, not on this story.) There's that nasty "subjective" issue rearing its ugly head again, but what's an editor to do?

Now onto the page itself.

I did a quick count of 10 adverbs--about 5% of the words. In fact, the story even starts with an adverb. I'm not sure why this writer is so dependent upon adverbs, because the verb usage is strong in this piece

Adverbs do two things: they tell and they clutter. My advice is to write with no adverbs at all and then go back and add them if you really can't think of a better way to express it. (I actually removed the adverbs from this piece as an experiment and it felt much stronger.) Granted, some people may lurve them some adverbs. This editor is not one of those people.

Also, writing-wise, we got some long sentences.
The last sentence on this page is a whopping 72 words. Break those puppies up! I also see some word echo and choreography issues, but those are minor fixes.

Dude. I have no idea where I am! Assuming your world is unlike any other--and it had better be if you want to sell the story--consider me lost. The first page can be a roadmap into your world. Setting details are like landmarks. Give us the name of the place, maybe, and some distinct, unusual details. Re: the brook in rocky terrain. I live near the mountains in Colorado. I see brooks in rocky terrain all the time. Shoot. That could be my neighbor's back yard water feature. Give me the most important setting detail(s) about your world as soon as you can.

I like that the guy is cleaved in half and comes back to life. That's an interesting take in a violent scene. But I need to care, and to do that, I need to know who the players are. So, along with putting your reader in place, tell me who the story is about. I don't know these folks like you do. Take the earliest opportunity to personalize your characters so your reader has a reason to care about them. For instance, this piece started with the Stradix Warrior, with a brief foray into his POV--the last thing it saw was the arcing swing of the blade--and then he promptly dies. Oh no! I'm lost, and now my tour guide is dead!

Pet peeves aside
(POV characters dying onscreen), I'm wondering who this story is about. The little rotund man? If so, then we should be in his head, or at least in the head of some other lug who's hanging around.

Finally, what's the story problem? The best advice I ever got about the short form is that the story problem can appear on page one and can be wrapped up on the last page. Deceptively simple, eh? Consider that short stories (and especially first pages) should rest on a three-legged stool of plot, character, and setting. You'll notice I had concerns with all three in this piece.

Unfortunately, based on these issues, I doubt I'd keep reading.

Thanks so much for having the courage to put your stuff out there! I hope this helps you and other writers. Part of Electric Spec's mission is to give a voice, make a place, for unpublished and newly published writers. This game is part of realizing that mission, but just like how the magazine can't work without our slush, the game can't work without you. Keep 'em coming!

addendum: I agree with Lesley in comments. I think I am harsh in this critique. I want to explain my method because I do A LOT of critique through various places and I don't usually hurt feelings. Hopefully I didn't do that here. But in this game I'm also trying to think it through as an editor, as well as show our authors and participants what is going through editors' heads as they read slush. I also am always happy within the game to take a look at rewrites, if anyone's interested.

18 November 2008

Game Entry #1

My comments in red.

Plasma rifle at the ready, Private Ralf Bein stalked down the center of the potholed road, taking his turn on point and not liking it one bit. The street was empty of civilians, which was a bad sign, making Ralf wonder if they knew something his patrolling ranger squad had not, as yet, discovered. That the rangers had also started taking random rifle fire in the last few minutes added to this genius assumption. So far it was nothing his armor couldn't handle--because little short of depleted uranium slugs or plasma could penetrate imperial battle armor with a single shot, and the outmanned and outgunned rebels weren't that well supplied. But the deserted streets and the steady pling and whine of bullets zinging off Ralf's gear was unnerving, to say the least, especially how the sound echoed between the buildings like angry insects.

"I feel like I've got a big glowing target on my helmet," he muttered on his team's sideband.

"You do," his team leader, Private Lassanog, replied on the same channel. "I jiggered your camofield myself, newbie." Gallows humor blossomed with the right fertilizer.

"'Whatever It Takes'." He murmured the Imperial Ranger motto instead of rising to the bait.

Love the first line. Think about all the things we learn from it:
Plasma rifle (sci-fi) at the ready, Private (ah, military sci fi) Ralf Bein (character name--preferably the protag) stalked (tough guy, are you?) down the center of the potholed road (setting detail indicating age and decay to their surroundings), taking his turn on point and not liking it one bit.(We're in his POV--confirming he's likely the protag. It also adds a bit of foreshadowing and tension.) All in all, very deftly done.

And if this writer can do all that in the space of so few words, it gives me hope that I'm in the hands of a competent storyteller. We do have a few unneeded words in the next sentence: as yet. Some folks might call this "voice" but it's actually repeating information we can glean from the verb. This is a perfect example of how and where to cut. Two words might not seem like much, but if you cut two words from every sentence in a 4000 words story, it adds up. I see unneeded words like this a lot.

The rest of the graph is set-up rather than forwarding the plot. But I'm thinking it works ok, I'm willing to keep reading and see what happens next, because the set-up acts as foreshadowing. You want to be careful about going too far with set-up. If a story needs a few pages of set-up then either the story is too big for the form or you didn't start it in the right place. Or you're just pleased as punch with your world and don't know when to say when. :)

On a personal note, which enters every editor's head, I'm thinking: Cool. Military Sci Fi. I love that! I never see enough of it either.

Gallows humor blossomed with the right fertilizer. While that's a nice line, I'd probably cut it. It overshadows the dialogue, which to my mind overshadows the story--the action. It's not a deal-breaker though, unless the authorial intrusion continues. You could kill on the same channel as well. We're in Bein's head so obviously he wouldn't hear it unless they were speaking on the same channel. (At this point you might be thinking I'm inflicting my style on the author's. Well, yeah, a little bit. That's part of an editor's job.)

I'd switch the tag to the front of the last line of dialogue so the reader knows what this means, and insert Bein's name. We've got two male speakers and presumably more will chime in at some point.

I'm not sure what the story is about quite yet beyond a basic "army" vs "rebels", but hopefully the next page will enlighten me further, and I'm expecting that this mission is directly related to the main problem in the story.

Overall, this one earns a Keep Reading.

Please feel free to chime in on comments, but be kind and diplomatic. Thanks for playing!!!

16 November 2008

Mini-slush game

Long time no blog! We've all had a busy fall dealing with day jobs, wrapping up the conference season, and causing general mayhem. (Okay, well that might just be me.)

To reward your patience and alleviate your boredom, I'd like to offer the First Page Critique Game, here on the blog. So far, it's mostly me doing this. The other editors may chime in as time and interest permit. If you're lucky, they'll disagree with me and you'll get to see us FIGHT, right here in our comments threads! (Hear that Gremlin? I can take you. Just try me.)

To keep things from getting overwhelming or confusing (for me, I mean) here are the Rules
(subject to change at any time by me or any other editor, game lasts only as long as we have entries and interest on both parties', er, parts. We reserve the right to decline any entry.):

1. Send FIRST PAGE only. Yes, you may finish your sentence, up to 200 words. (Per our guidelines, that's generous.) A title might be nice, too.

2. Speculative Fiction only. More on this later.

2. Send your First Page Only labeled
RE: First Page Game to betsy (at) electricspec.com. Feel free to include your entry in the body of the email. I have problems with spam in that account, so you MUST label your entry.

Please note: this address is not a shortcut around our slush. Regular submissions to this address will be deleted unread.

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

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

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

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

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

8.+ [Space reserved for any other rules I can think up when the caffeine kicks in.]

I'm doing this out of what little goodness is left in my sour, blackened editorial heart. Please don't harass us if we don't fall in love with your page. Also, no toadies or sycophants, please. I get enough of that from Gremlin.

11 November 2008

Writing on Reading: KOP

Recently I read KOP, Warren Hammond's first novel. From the title you might guess the author is a really bad speller, but it turns out KOP stands for Koba's Office of Police, where Koba is a city on a far away planet, Lagarto. (Interestingly, in the U.K. this summer I found out that the word "cop" is itself an acronym for Constable On Patrol.) I found KOP to be very well plotted; I had to read it in one sitting! The author also does an amazing job with characterization. His protagonist, Juno Mozambe, is a worn-out crooked cop, but the reader really empathizes with him. Why? I'll give you a couple tidbits from the official blurb: "despite his past sins and his present problems, some small part of Juno has not given up hope." He gets "a chance to blow the lid of a huge scandal—an offworld plot to crush the slim hope Lagarto has to regain its economic independence. If he can break the case it would mean a new beginning for him and his world...if the conspirators don't break him first." For a first novel, KOP is impressive; I highly recommend this book.

What good books have you read lately?

07 November 2008

NaNoWriMo--lots of info in forums

We have been remiss on the blogging lately, sorry. I know one editor has a huge important project with his day job, but I'm not sure what's up with the others. Personally, WorldCon and MileHiCon really pumped me up and I have been writing a ton! (All Electric Spec editors are also writers.) All this writing makes me think of Nanowrimo...

I'm sure you all know about NaNoWriMo and how it's going on right now and how it rocks! I think this year is the tenth anniversary year. I did it once and it was an excellent experience. I did write a lot of words but it also taught me to silence my inner editor. This was very helpful and even more valuable than the pages I finished. (You wouldn't want to see those pages!) :) You don't have to participate in NaNoWriMo to get some benefits of it. For example, the Forums have tons of info. I found an interesting link to Wil Wheaton's NaNoWriMo tips for example.

IMHO, it's not too late to start NaNoWriMo or your own Short-Story-Writing-Month, ShoStoWriMo?, if you feel inspired. How about it? Any of our readers/writers doing NaNoWriMo or variations on same?

05 November 2008

2008 World Fantasy Winners

The 2008 World Fantasy Award winners were announced during the 2008 World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on Sunday, November 2. Best short story went to Theodora Goss for "Singing of Mount Abora" (Logorrhea, Bantam Spectra). Read more about it at World Fantasy. Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!

31 October 2008

We're Live!

We're live with a new issue of Electric Spec! Check out our selection of excellent stories by Tyree Campbell, S. Hutson Blount, Jason K. Chapman, Lyle Skains, and Bob Burnett! We also have some excellent features including our movie column by Marty Mapes and an article "Irony in Fiction" by our own Editor Betsy. And of course, I already blogged about my interview with author M.M. Buckner. Check them all out!

Thank you to all our editors, authors, and artists! You guys rock!

29 October 2008


And the conference season has come to a close, at least for this editor, at least until spring. Mile Hi Con is a small regional convention, but we had a decent writers track and top-notch authors like Carrie Vaughn, Connie Willis, Jim Butcher, vampire writers Jeanne Stein, Mario Acevedo, and David Dvorkin, Hugo Nominee Paulo Bagigalupi, Warren Hammond, author of the gritty KOP series...and the list goes on. It's inexpensive (something like $40 for three days) and they do a great job at making it easy for participants--panels don't require as much prep for a busy author.

I attended a great panel, Short Story 101, more fondly known as "Clarion in Five Minutes." When the authors were asked what is the best lesson they can impart to the audience in just a few minutes, they unilaterally agreed:

Ask the story question on the first page; answer the story question on the last page.

Sounds simple, right?

Well, you'd be surprised how many stories I read that have me wondering at page three, Writing's nice, but what's the story about?

One other thing struck me. Lesley and I in particular have always believed short stories should be about more than one thing. This panel disagreed, stating emphatically that the short form only has room for one question at a time. So I thought about that and I decided that maybe what Lesley and I are driving at is that multiple devices should support one story question. Backpedaling? Maybe. It is election season. :)

She can chime in here on this topic as well, later, but I believe character, setting, and plot should all drive the story question to its logical conclusion (ironic twists notwithstanding). As well, stories are often more interesting if unlikely, conflicting elements combine to support the story question.

Thoughts on this, anyone?

21 October 2008

Interview with M.M. Buckner

Our new issue of Electric Spec, out October 31, 2008 will feature an interview with award-winning author M.M. Buckner. M.M. burst onto the scene in 2003 and has already racked up some awards including the Philip K. Dick Award for her 2006 novel War Surf. Her new book Watermind is coming out in November, 2008 and she told me it's about a liquid artificial intelligence... Wow! Sounds intriguing! The Electric Spec editors met M.M. at WorldCon 2008 and thought she was so interesting she'd give a good interview. We were right! Check out what she has to say about eco-fiction, "post-cyberpunk", classic literature, mental whiplash and more in the next issue of Electric Spec!

In other Electric Spec news...
The new issue is coming along nicely, and looks like it will be one of our best ever. (Yes, I do say that every time.)

We're working on some big changes for 2009.

Come meet Editor Betsy and me at MileHiCon this weekend in Denver. I'll be on ecology, women's fiction, post-Harry-Potter science, and cartoon physics panels.

And keep sending us those stories!

16 October 2008

Writing on Reading: Grimspace

My favorite thing happened last week: I discovered a new author! While perusing the new books section at the library, I came across Grimspace by Ann Aguirre. From the official blurb: "By all accounts, Sirantha Jax should have burned out years ago…
As the carrier of a rare gene, Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace—a talent which cuts into her life expectancy, but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. But then the ship she’s navigating crash-lands, and she’s accused of killing everyone on board." etc. etc. Needless to say, when she busts out of prison hijinks ensue... I won't ruin it for you.

This book was excellent for many reasons: the protagonist is flawed and sympathetic, it starts in the middle of the action and the plot moves at a brisk pace, the big-idea (grimspace and the protag's special ability) is intriguing, and the prose is very smooth. I heard this was Ms. Aguirre's first novel. I'm not sure if that's true, but we should all write so well.
I have nothing negative to say about this book. Wait, I thought of something: it was too short. :) Check it out. Or maybe you already read it? If so, what did YOU think?

In other Electric Spec news...

Sorry I haven't been blogging much, putting together the new issue is a lot of work. The new issue will be out on October 31! It looks really good, too.

Early next week I will blog about a very interesting interview...

Keep sending us stories for our first 2009 issue! (Hey, Editors, we need to finalize the publication dates for 2009.)

09 October 2008

E-Spec Editor in Locus

Boy am I mad! I've been trying to get my picture into Locus for years, but who did I see in the latest issue? Electric Spec editor Betsy Dornbusch! It's a picture from Worldcon with her standing next to Carol Berg and Brenda Carre. Okay, I admit she looks fab, but I was really hoping they'd publish the pic of me hanging from the chandelier and dipping my ears in the chocolate fondue. Or maybe the one of me reaching into the stripper's bra strap. 

I guess Charles Brown is still angry at me for that little incident where I accidently bit his ankle. I told him I was drunk on axel grease and Bacardi 151, but he won't listen. Man, can that guy hold a grudge!

05 October 2008

Countdown to Issue III

I'm very excited about our next issue of Electric Spec, coming out on October 31. Not only do we have some great stories, but we have an exciting author interview, our movie column, and something interesting in the Editor's Corner.

It is hard to believe that this will be our ninth issue of the magazine, and we're still going strong. In fact, we're planning some new surprises for 2009. We always welcome feedback and ideas about how to make the magazine even better. Feel free to post a comment about it or e-mails us at our "editors" address, which is on our website.

01 October 2008

Production Overload

You may have noticed that our posts have not been as frequent lately. That's because things get pretty frenzied here at Electric Spec about a month before our publication date. All three of us have a pile of tasks to perform to get the magazine ready. We get author contracts signed, we edit and format stories (and send authors the galleys), we convert the magazine into PDF and PRC formats, we find and choose art, we write a Message from the Editors, we put together author bios and links, and we try not to tear our hair out in the process.

Come to think of it, I can see why some many fledgling e-zines fail. Putting out a quality product on a regular basis is much harder that you might think. Generally, you need more than one person on board and you all need to work together, trusting each other to get all the jobs done. I, for one, feel lucky to have such terrific partners in this endeavor who are willing to work for such low pay (okay, free) and will still drink beer with me on occasion.

28 September 2008

David's Comments On the Selection Process

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

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

25 September 2008

more comments on our selection process

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

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

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

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

24 September 2008

Making the Cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 September 2008

Writing on Reading: A Princess of Roumania

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

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

18 September 2008

Personal Rejections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 September 2008

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

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

Editorial Gremlin's Seven Green Goo Rules 

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

15 September 2008

Fall Issue Submission Deadline Today!

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

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

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

12 September 2008

The Art of the Slow Reveal

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

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

11 September 2008

Slamming F & SF

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

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

10 September 2008

What say again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 September 2008

How to Write Horrible Horror

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

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

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

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

04 September 2008

some advice for authors...

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

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

02 September 2008

Writing on Reading: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

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

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

29 August 2008

Writing on Reading: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Since Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union won this year's Hugo for best novel, I figured I'd better check it out. After all, lots of WorldCon members voted for it, and if they liked it, then I'd probably like it.

It's easy to find good things to say about the novel. Chabon is a talented wordsmith. He fits more brilliant similes on one page than I can manage in a whole novel. His world is really creative: an alternative world where a Jewish settlement was established in Alaska. He fills the book with all kinds of unique and detailed characters. And thematically, he deals with important issues related to prejudice, isolation, and addiction.

Even with all that, I have to confess I didn't finish the book. I just did not get pulled in emotionally, nor did I care about the "whodunit" aspect of the plot. In some ways, the reading experience was a flashback to my college days, where I'd be reading a classic that I was "supposed" to enjoy, but the most I could manage was a grudging respect for the author. 

So, maybe one of you WorldCon members who voted for the novel can post a comment about why you voted for it. Am I just a doofus who can't appreciate a classic when its right under my nose?

28 August 2008

Dying as a cop-out

Today I'm broaching POV characters dying. Bernita piqued today's interest in the topic. My feelings? I don't like it. For one, it ruins my suspension of disbelief.

As a fantasy editor and avid reader, I'll buy (figuratively, of course) just about anything. But unless your world includes storytelling ghosts, and it's established early on so that it doesn't reek of deus ex machina, death is the end of the road. For example, I happen to have talking ghosts figure widely in a series I'm shopping, and on about the second page, when Aidan is trying to figure something out, he muses that it can't be a ghost, he'd seen them before and they weren't like that.

Mainly, though, there are fates worse than death, and if you, as the devil of your particular little world (hogwash that writers are gods--good writers are SATAN) don't come up with one, then you're not doing your job. In short, death = cop-out.

It bears repeating, er, repeatedly: figure out what makes a character tick, and then put the screws to them, taking away all that they love and desire. GRR Martin is an undisputed master of this, and millions of books sold can't be wrong. In his SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, one anti-hero, arguably the best swordsman of the realm, loses a hand. A romantic, silly beauty hopes to be married to a handsome prince, but ends up with a deformed dwarf. In these situations, the characters very nearly do want to die, but Martin, in his brilliant demonesque fashion, withholds that, too.

There's no excuse to not tackle this in short form, as well. I see stories all the time in which the stakes are loved ones, death and destruction, or loss of power. Yawn. EVERYONE wants their loved ones safe, they want to stay whole and healthy. Kings want to remain kings. That's every-man, and while such stories have their place, the really unique, interesting stories are the ones in which the character has a really unique, interesting desire. If that desire, and the achievement of it, stands at odds with his world and even his own character, so much the better.

27 August 2008

Circulation page

I made a new Circulation page over at Electric Spec. We'll update it at the beginning of every month. Check it out! :)

26 August 2008

Hard SF according to the experts

We are starting to get busy putting the new Electric Spec issue together. One of the things I'm working on is an exciting new author interview (which I'll blog about more later). It has been said that the author in question writes hard SF, which prompted me to ask: What exactly is hard SF?.

SF readers might say, "You know, stuff in Analog." But editor Stanley Schmidt himself said, "I'd like the term 'Hard SF' to go away. ...My definition of science fiction is simply fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can't be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible. Anything that doesn't meet those requirements is not science fiction at all, as far as I'm concerned, so there's no need for a separate term like 'Hard SF' to distinguish it from 'other' kinds of SF." Read more. Now, I'm more confused. :)

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer edited an important book called The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction and have some opinions on the topic. Among other things, Mr. Hartwell said, "Hard sf is about the beauty of truth. It is a metaphorical or symbolic representation of the wonder at the perception of truth that is experienced at the moment of scientific discovery. ...Hard sf is, then, about the emotional experience of describing and confronting what is scientifically true." And additionally, hard SF involves 'scientific plausibility', 'expository prose', 'scientific knowledge external to the story', and 'didacticism'. Read more.

Ms. Cramer agreed with Mr. Hartwell's wonder of science/ensuing emotions, and even contended that "science and hard sf are very similar". Furthermore, "hard sf has an identifiable feel, a particular kind of narrative voice, the right attitude. This attitude is respectful of the principles underlying the practice of science... the literal facts of a situation are more important than any interpretation. The anti-mysticism of hard sf is a point of pride for sf writers ... who see science as a replacement for religion and superstition." In the end, she says, "Writing stories within the rules of the universe as we know it and yet discovering fantastic possibilities of new ways of life is the central endeavor of the hard sf writer. ...Sf represents what the future could be like, although we know that the actual future will look nothing like it and when we meet it we may not recognize it." Read more.

They're the experts, so I guess we have to go with what they think. What do you think?