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.