30 May 2008

model homes, model stories

I put my finger on something recently. Good stories let the readers fill in most of the blanks.

Wow. Sounds easy huh? Yeah, well, think about it. While you do, I'll provide an analogy that, after your thinking, might confuse you even more.

Empty houses don't sell well. It's a known fact. That's why there are furnished model homes. Most folks can't visualize worth a damn, so they need some help.
The bed goes here. See, how pretty a picture looks here...

However, houses that are too stacked with the homeowners' junk don't sell well, either. People can't mentally remove the junk and put themselves and their things in that space. They see clutter, even in a big room, and think: Gaaa! There's no room for my stuff in here! The eye might fill in gaps; it does not like to create them.

So it is with writing. Too much information leaves no blanks for readers to fill in with thier own experiences, their own stuff. Too few, too spare on the details, and readers just wander through the story, feeling lost and echoey. Where does the balance lie? It's likely different for everybody. But the stories in our hold for voting box do tend to leave room for readers to actively participate in the telling of it by inserting their own perspective.

26 May 2008

Rising Above the Rest

I've been looking at the stories that the Electric Spec editors have held for voting. This is one of my favorite parts of the job because all of the stories have something that caught an editor's eye. Now we begin culling the best of the best.

Why are these stories so good? The truth is, there's no easy answer. All of the stories have solid writing. Beyond that, they have something extra like a great plot idea, interesting world, or unique characters. Some are stronger in one area than another. It's the stories that have the most going for them that end up making the final cut.  

21 May 2008

Submission Dos and Don'ts

I've just gotten through my share of the submissions for our next issue of Electric Spec. If your story didn't make it past the first cut, keep in mind this list for next time:

  •  Trim, trim, trim. Is your story as tight as it can be? Just because we have a 7000 word limit does not mean your story should be 6098 words. Too much unncessary exposition or plotting is one of the most common problems I see. Even for may of the stories we end up publishing, the editors end up cutting out the extra.
  • Follow the guidelines. Remember to include a word count in the cover letter. You won't get rejected if you forget, but stuff like that puts the editor in a bad mood before he or she starts reading the story
  • Hook me in the opening line, opening paragraph, or opening page. If I have no idea what your story is about, where it is going, or what's interesting about it after the first page, I may decide not to read much more of it.
  • Personalize your cover letter. If we've met you at a conference, workshop, or convention, remind us. If you've ACTUALLY READ our 'zine, tell us what you read and why you think your story fits. All of this will not guarantee that we'll publish your story, but a personalized touch does add a spark of sunlight to the hours we spend in a dark room in front of a computer.

  • Include information about your family, pets, day job, etc. in the cover letter. It's not that we don't care about these things . . . well, actually it is. 
  • Include information about the plot or theme of your story in the cover letter. Hopefully, we will be able to figure that out when we read the story. If not, we won't end up publishing it anyhow.
  • Use a cover/title page. It makes your story look like it was written for 10th grade creative writing class, and it makes us scroll down the screen more than we have to. Yes, we're that lazy.
  • Include as a credit in your bio that you have a "novel coming out this fall." That doesn't mean anything. I have a couple of novels that I wrote sitting on my hard drive, but that does not mean they are publication credits. If you want to impress us (and it's true) say this: "My novel, The Vanquishing Sword of Death is coming out this summer and is being published by Tor." (The "published by" part is key).

20 May 2008

demonstrate don't recount

In the Electric Spec submissions pile, I've found a few stories recently in which the author recounts the story events. This is not as effective as demonstrating the events! Our life experiences of "telling" stories may work against us when it comes time to write a story.
IMHO, what we need in a modern publishable story is something you can act out. In fact, one of my critique partners is prone to acting out scenes at critique group! Of course, your stories should also include beautiful descriptions, intriguing flawed characters, and whatever else you like. :)

Authors, ask yourselves: does your story contain stuff you can act out? If not, try writing it more in-the-moment. Demonstrate what happens!

15 May 2008

physical description and pov

We've started working furiously on the June 30 issue of Electric Spec. This means we've been working extra hard to get through the submissions. I have some advice for authors: keep in mind pov when you're doing physical descriptions. The modern style in short stories is NOT to describe the physical characteristics of your protagonist. However, if you insist on doing so, please do not have the protag see him/herself in a mirror or glass door or similar and describe him/herself. Also please do not have your protag run his/her fingers through their auburn/blonde/gray/brown/etc. hair. Generally this introduces a pov problem because, for example, people don't sit around thinking "I brush my fingers through my purple hair", right?

Of course, now, the rest of the day, I will be thinking this, but generally people don't. :)

The deadline for submissions for the June 30 issue is today (midnight U.S. MDT)!

14 May 2008

A day in the life of an editor

Or: Why I Take 4-6 Weeks To Read Your Story.

6 am NPR starts shouting at me about various disasters around the world, the least of which is the Democratic race for President.
6:30 shower
6:45 (dripping) Wake kids up, lay out two sets of wee clothes
7 Beg husband to boil water for tea. His answer is a blank stare.
7:26 (hair drying funny) Insist kid quits playing drums and get upstairs to breakfast. I blowdry, but it's too late.
7:52 Drop kids at school
8:15 Receive email response about a story (another zine, my story). A little back and forth.
8:20 Various other emails and visit blogs. Write a quick post since it's been a week.
10 Remember I should get a chapter out to crit group. Read over chapter so I don't make a complete idiot of myself.
11 Remind myself to read stories. Take a gander at cover art instead and lose myself in artist websites.
12 Lunch. While munching a salad I write exactly two sentences on the chapter I was supposed to finish yesterday.
1 A low buzz of panic sets in. The kids come home in an hour-and-a-half. In a classic display of Avoidance Tendancy, I put another load of laundry in.
1:30 Finally bang out some pages on the WIP, completing yesterday's goal of finishing the chapter.
2:35 (late, as usual) Pick up kids from school. Snack. Homework. Whining. Drum practice. Repeat.
3:17 Finally open story box. Read stories. One lacks commas. One starts well, but doesn't complete its own arc. Microsoft word count clocks two stories at well over seven thousand words. As this is our upper limit, I'm willing to slash if the story is grand. They aren't. One story is intriguing; I save that for voting. The last uses passive voice in the first sentence.
4 (yeah, I know, I'm a fast reader) Off to kid's drum lesson
5:30 Try to make hair look like something.
6 PTA meeting.
10 Fall into bed. Read The Tempest for a class I'm taking. Note extensive use of backstory. Realize I've retained something of my year of college Shakespeare. The Bard still makes sense.
11 Fall asleep, dreaming of Ariel and commas...

13 May 2008

Lessing: Nobel win a 'disaster'

I reported Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature here a while back. It's apparently time for an update. Now, according to BBC News, she says "...winning the prestigious award in 2007 had been a 'bloody disaster'. The increased media interest in her has meant that writing a full novel was next to impossible... Since her Nobel win she has been constantly in demand, she said. 'All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed.' Speaking about her writing, she said: 'It has stopped, I don't have any energy any more.'" Read more.

I'm sorry to hear about her troubles. :(
I guess the lesson for authors is: don't get distracted from writing!

Deadline looming!

The deadline for our next issue (June 30) is looming! It is May 15. Send Electric Spec those stories ASAP. Our submission instructions are here.

12 May 2008

Writing on Reading: Magic for Beginners

I recently reread Kelly Link's short story collection, Magic for Beginners. Link is one of my favorite contemporary genre short story writers, and Magic for Beginners shows why. Although these days "fresh" and "original" are so overused they've become cliched, Link shows what it means to create a voice and a style that stand out from everyone else out there. The originality of her characters and description blows me away.  Even though the theme of some of her stories seems beyond my grasp, all of her stories reward me with the unexpected, if not the understood.

Some to think of it, Kelly Link would be a very interesting person to interview for Electric Spec. Hmmm . . .  

Writing on Reading: Anansi Boys

I recently read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman says it is a "funny, scary, romantic comedy, thriller about Gods and the Supernatural and the power of stories and so on. I guess it's about how to survive families".

I say, "Wow, this was excellent! I highly recommend it." The prose, characterizations and plot are excellent.

Very briefly, Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie (who isn't actually fat) a timid accountant living in London, whose wedding preparations are interrupted by his father's death in Florida. At the funeral, Fat Charlie learns he has a hitherto unknown brother AND his father was an incarnation of the West African spider god, Anansi. Antics ensue. :)

Interestingly, Gaiman withdrew Anansi Boys from consideration for the Hugo Award. He said in August 2006, "I suppose partly I did it because I have three Hugos already, and I felt it was better to get more names on the ballot that weren't mine, and partly because I think I feel more comfortable when the things of mine that get Hugo nominations are marginally closer to SF than to pure fantasy, but mostly because when they told me Anansi Boys was nominated it just felt right to say no thank you, this time. Obviously I'm grateful to everyone who voted for it, and happy for the other awards that it's won and is nominated for, but on this one, well, it just felt right to say no. So I did."


11 May 2008

Dark Fiction

There was some discussion about the Internet last week on dark fiction, its definition and boundaries. Dark fiction, especially dark fantasy and dark urban fantasy, is mostly defined in the marketplace by publishers. There's an idea, a valid one, that folks likes their urban fantasy dark. Sometimes, I have trouble figuring out what makes such work dark. To me, this means dark themes left in the wake of grim plot events; perhaps to other publishers it means that the whole story happens at night.

For instance, I've never heard George RR Martin's work called dark in marketing copy, but he tortures his characters so violently and permanently, I fail to see how it could be considered anything but. He eloquently deprives each character of that which they most covet (for instance, a bastard loses his father, a romantic never finds love, a warrior loses his hand, a rambunctious child loses the use of his legs) leading to an overarching theme best stated as: It's not darkest before dawn, but right before your worst nightmare.

For Electric Spec's purposes, we like our dark themes truly dark. I rarely see stories in my slush that push the boundaries of dark fiction. Usually it has to do with under-developed internal conflict. So many writers fail to discover that which drives their protagonist, what makes him feel alive and who he is, and then steal it within the context of external conflict. If we can identify with the protag in real crisis, then the veil of suspended disbelief starts to fall over our eyes. How the protag strives to get it back makes for the plot events that build themes. This might include horror, macabre, even tragedy, but above all, it requires deprivation. Deprivation, often with permanent consequences, is at the heart of every good dark story.

08 May 2008

Drink out of the fire hose?

I've been following a discussion slightly related to Dave's yesterday post over at agent Nathan Bransford's blog, in which he says the publishing industry "somehow manages to be seen as being in decline while growing at 3%, and where 400,000 books were published in the last year but (seemingly) fewer of them are published by mainstream houses who are (seemingly) focus on a narrowing slate of blockbusters." This has the corollary: "As the spigot of publishing opens up wide, we're going to have to find a way to drink out of that fire hose." and "what is going to take for the good books to stand out?"

As a reader, I must admit I'm not concerned about the fire hose at all. I just discovered a fabulous new-to-me author this week (I'll blog about it next week).

As an author, I must admit I'm VERY concerned. How can authors make a living in this market where you can download stuff for free and the traditional publishers are going away?

Maybe it's time to give up the old author paradigm? It is a dinosaur? Maybe we should all publish our stories and books for free on the web and make our livings off of ads or other-idea-yet-to-be-invented?

What do you all think?

07 May 2008

Reproduction 101

Let's skip the birds and the bees and go directly to flowers--dandelions in particular. A dandelion may produce 2,000 seeds per year. Lots of those seeds may end up in places where they can't grow, but even if only two end up sprouting, that's another 4000 seeds.

This information goes a long way toward explaining the state of my front lawn, but it also has some use to authors, says Cory Doctorow in the May issue of Locus

"If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, . . .  the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have--given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing."

In case you're wondering, Mr. Doctorow thinks that, in the right circumstances, such reproduction is a good thing. No, you may not make a buck or two off the story, but you may hit a home run with an agent or editor who reads your work, likes it (or hears how many others like it), calls you up, and says "do you have anything else"?

06 May 2008

Submission deadline May 15!

This just in...
The Electric Spec submission deadline for our June 30, 2008 issue is midnight (U.S. MDT) May 15, 2008!
I just posted it on the webpages. We will, of course, accept submissions after that for our next issue, Oct 31, 2008. :)
Send those stories in!

Future Ain't What It Used To Be?

There's a funny/interesting post by spec fic author Mario Acevedo over at Eos Books blog, in which he states "The Future Ain't What It Used To Be". Mario refers mostly to pulp SF visions of the future including floating bubble cities, unisex silver overalls, rocket packs, etc.

IMHO, speculative fiction has come a long way since the pulps. Reading their 'gee-whiz' naivete is a charming form of time-travel in which the authors believe in the best of human beings. It was never realistic. Today's spec fic authors have embraced the full gamut of human qualities from evil to, yes, naivete. :) I like that better, personally. In fact, the best authors extrapolate the realistic problems of technology (aerial rocket pack jams?) in addition to showing their 'gee whiz' qualities. Send Electric Spec some stories like that!

What do you think? We are living in yesterday's future. Is the future what it used to be? :)

05 May 2008

Rock On, Orson!

In the new Tor/Forge newsletter, Orson Scott Card wrote an interesting article on why he still  writes short stories even though they don't pay the bills. He also pointed out something we strongly believe in at Electric Spec. He said:

"But I hope you’ll also remember that there are new writers out there, trying to be part of the conversation. Look for magazines — online or in print — and anthologies and collections. Give them a try. I can promise you that now and then — more often than you might suppose — you’ll find something and somebody wonderful. Because if sci-fi is to survive as a genre, it won’t be because readers stick to books with familiar names on the cover. . . .  And if a new generation is to take flight, it will fledge in the nest of short fiction."

Welcome to our nest!

Writing on Reading: The Tempest

I recently read The Tempest by William Shakespeare, dated 1610-11, generally accepted to be his last play. (You're wondering what the heck this has to do with spec fiction--but I'll get to that). A very brief plot is: A sorcerer/Duke, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda, are stranded on an island. Prospero has magic powers and is served by a spirit, Ariel, who he rescued from a witch's imprisonment, and the witch's son Caliban, a deformed monster. Prospero raises a storm to crash his brother Antonio's ship (which just happens to be passing by), and using spells separates the survivors of the wreck into several groups. Then three plots run in parallel: Caliban falls in with 2 drunken crew members and they try to rebel against Prospero, Prospero fosters a romantic affair between Miranda and a young man from the ship (Ferdinand), and Antonio and a buddy conspire to kill the king so the buddy can be king. In the end, Prospero foils all the plots and succeeds with the Mirando-Ferdinand love affair, and they all go back to Italy, happy, and Prospero gives up his powers.

Clearly, this is fantasy, i.e. speculative fiction, with all the magic, the witch, the spirit, etc! Who know spec fic was so old? Not I. :)

Supposedly, the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet was a film adaptation of The Tempest. I recently watched this, too. Instead of a magical island, it's set on the planet Altair-IV, but there is a 'magic' scientist father and a beautiful daughter, a helpful spirit: Ariel/Robbie-the-Robot, a ship of men who crash one of whom has a romance with the daughter, and a monster: Caliban/the scientist's id. ...Okay. I must admit there are some similarities.

Supposedly, Star Trek is also based on The Tempest. Hhm...there's a ship and they have various adventures. I'm not sure I see it, but I'll keep you posted if I get any additional info.

However, a very obvious spec fic TV shows comes to mind...Isn't the plot of The Tempest basically the TV show Lost? I think so! What do you think?

New Sawyer Short Story Collection

FYI Electric Spec readers: there's a new short story collection out from Robert J. Sawyer. Red Deer Press, a division of Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside, has just released Robert J. Sawyer's second short-story collection, Identity Theft and Other Stories. The title story was a Nebula and Hugo Award finalist. The collection also includes the Hugo finalist "Shed Skin" (which was the basis for Sawyer's John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning 2005 novel Mindscan), the Aurora Award winners "Ineluctable" and "Biding Time," and 13 more. The book has an introduction by Hugo winner Robert Charles Wilson, and each story is accompanied by Sawyer's own commentary.
Looks intriguing!

04 May 2008

What's Hot in Genre Fiction?

There's been an interesting discussion on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's loop, responding the the question: "What's hot in Genre Fiction?"

Here's what Carol Berg, high fantasy author extraordinaire and Electric Spec interviewee had to say about it:

"In fantasy, urban fantasy (contemporary world with "extras" like
vampires, werewolves, and so forth) is still hot, despite frequent
reports of "vampire fatigue." My editor says that they can put a new
author in urban fantasy and the books will still be snapped up. Times
are tougher for new authors in traditional/heroic/epic fantasy, and yet
two of the most acclaimed new authors in fantasy are traditional fantasy
writers - Naomi Novik, who already has a Peter Jackson movie deal for
Temeraire, and Patrick Rothfuss."

Rothfuss has one book out, called The Name of the Wind. I read it when it first came out and I thought it was excellent. I know a lot of non-genre readers who loved the book as well. I'll have to head to the library and pick up a Novik book now.

03 May 2008

Got Plot?

Today I saw a play called "The Last Five Years." It was an excellent musical about a man an a woman who fall in love, get married, fall out of love, and get divorced. So, how could such a standard plot be made original? The man's story went from the beginning of the relationship to the end, but the woman's went from the end to the beginning. All the songs were solos, except for one duet right in the middle of the play. Pretty cool, huh?

If the plot of a story you're working on feels tired, why not see if you can tell the story in a new way--like forwards and backwards at the same time!

02 May 2008

Friday Fun: PhD Comics

Okay, this is only marginally related to Electric Spec, but I recently found a hilarious website: PhD Comics by Jorge Cham. If you've been to grad school or have ever thought of going to grad school, you'll get a kick out of these. Happy Friday!

01 May 2008

Writing on Reading: The Black Order

James Rollins' The Black Order is science fiction . . . or a thriller . . . or a science fiction thriller, depending on who you ask. I found my copy in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section of the Boulder Book Store, but I don't think it belonged there. The Black Order is about a secret U.S. military group that tries to stop a neo-Nazi villain who has developed new, dangerous technology. While the science it somewhat "out there" it is based on sound scientific theories that are explained in the novel. (In fact, Lesley will be interested to know that there is a lengthy explanation of the famous double slit experiment). I find the premise to be no different that other thrillers that are not categorized as science fiction, basically following the spy-novel formula. So, why was it shelved with the science fiction books? Too much explanation of the the science? Too much far-out technology? Don't ask me. It's a good read--why not try to decide for yourself?