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!