31 December 2009

Jan 15, 2010 story deadline for Feb issue

Hi guys,
The deadline for stories to be considered for the February 2010 issue of Electric Spec is midnight U.S. M.S.T. January 15, 2010, as I just posted on the website.
After Jan. 15th, your story will be considered for the next issue, probably June 30, 2010.
Thanks for sending us your stories! Keep it up! :)

29 December 2009

New Years Resolution: Write More Stories

Many extremely successful speculative fiction authors have honed their craft on short stories. For example, as I alluded to in a blog entry at the beginning of December 2009, author Paolo Bacigalupi was inspired to write short SF stories by William Gibson:
I'd stalked William Gibson at one point at a book signing and had asked him what his secret to success was. ...I hit him with all of these questions and one of the things that he said was that he'd written short stories until somebody would take him seriously and that was when he managed to actually sell a novel. So I sort of took that to heart and went home and sat down and was like: 'OK, so I need to write a short story. How the fuck do I do this?'
So I bought some science fiction magazines--fantasy and science fiction magazines and stuff-- and read all of the short stories in them and went, 'OK, I just need to write something better than any these things.' I sat down and started banging away and eventually what I got was "Pocketful of Dharma."

I recently read Paycheck And Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick and he has a bunch of notes about his stories at the end. Interestingly, among other things, Dick says novels are about characters (they drive the actions of the novel), while short stories are about plot:
In a story, you learn about the characters from what they do; in a novel it is the other way around: you have your characters and then they do something idiosyncratic, emanating from their unique natures. What an SF story really requires is the initial premise which cuts it off entirely from our present world.
Thus, Dick maintains novels and short stories are very different but both are very valuable. I concur.

I've been analyzing some of my favorite p-zines lately and noticed one publishes approx 90% space stories and another publishes stories with approx 80% narrative. I think here at Electric Spec we are open to all types of prose and all types of speculative content. So, for your New Years Resolution consider writing more short stories and sending them to us. We would appreciate it. :)

Happy New Year!

18 December 2009

The Electric Spec Production Meeting

Every four months Lesley, Dave, and I spend a week or two reading the best stories of the lot. Right now our hold for voting file is running about 25 stories per issue. We each read on our own with no discussion, and we put them in order, our favorites listed first. I'm most concerned with the top ten stories, getting that order the way I want it. We often have the same stories in the top ten, and if one of us has one listed first, that can influence the vote, especially at the end of determining the issue. So it's important that I decide which is my absolute favorite story of the group.

You'll hear editors talk about "issue balance" a lot. I'd say that after good stories – and most of the stories in our hold file are good, quality stories – this is our primary concern. In speculative fiction there are several sub-genres: SF, Fantasy, Horror, and then sub-sub genres (I'm getting facetious here) like military SF, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, steampunk, hard SF, futuristic, and then cross-genre, like a military SF mystery or a vampire romance… you get the picture.

We stumble over genre sometimes. One round we got several good werewolf stories, almost enough to fill an issue. Well, short of doing a themed issue, we had to choose only one. Which leads me to the more particular, likely annoying aspect of choosing stories: subjective preference.

This is what can get us into trouble with each other, because our tastes run to wildly different styles and genres. After four years, though, we know each other pretty well. We've gone from arguing against stories more to "I knew you'd love that story."

Generally, we can settle on the top four very quickly. It's often that last story that makes our meeting drag on. Save issue balance, we have to battle it out. If we have a story one of us is adamant about, then the others will often defer. But we'll often dig deep into a couple of stories, examining the plot, theme, characterization, and actual writing, trying to get at which most deserves the spot.

Oh, and beer. There's always beer.

So there you have it, our production meeting. Thoughts?

16 December 2009

Betsy's Editing Process

I had a request for a post on how we edit stories. Of course, each editor could probably write our own posts because we have differences to our styles. I'll let my partners speak for themselves. But I can say with all certainty that should I become your editor, I'm likely to imprint some of my style on it, just not quite in the way you'd think. Still, with that, you're probably wondering what is my style?

I appreciate economy in short fiction. I favor action over internal narrative and intrusive voice. I like streamlined stories with natural flow and progression, stories in which plot holds significance with no extraneous explanations. I prefer meaning over language, showing over telling, action over description. I lean toward plainer language.

It might sound like I operate within a very narrow frame of preference, but if you look at the last four years of stories I've edited, I think you're going to see a huge range. I am actively seeking different genres at different times, but generally I go by originality and entertainment.

After four years, we've achieved the luxury of a generous, high-quality slushpile.

slush is my first opportunity to touch your story and influence the next issue. I like to see the above qualities in the slush. As I've tried to demonstrate in the First Page Game, I read my slush editorially, thinking about what I'll have to do to the story to make it fit my preference. I might read along happily, without thinking about it, and that's a quick pass to the hold file. It may not be a quick pass to the issue, though. If upon second reading I notice too many problems, I'm probably not going to push for it.

But really this is about stories that made the cut, because I generally don't touch a word until we have a contract for a story. Not permanently, anyway. I do sometimes adjust things while I read slush for editorial experimenting, kind of like getting my feet wet before diving into the pool. But I don't save any changes until our offer has been accepted. The staff needs to read the story as is.

After our production meeting (a whole other blog topic), I start getting into nuts and bolts, my pinky hovering near the delete key. I'm going to remove qualifiers, some adverbs, and fix word echoes. I'm going to add tags for clarity or remove them for pacing. I've been known to cut lines of dialogue and rearrange choreography, but your characters are still going to mean what you meant them to say, and they're still going to get from your Point A to your Point B.

I'll fix sentence structure, generally to subject/verb, and fix weak structure, such as sentences that start with "there". I'm going to fix punctuation (commas!), grammar, and spelling – and I'm going to be mightily annoyed if I have to do a lot of that. I'm going to spend some time on formatting, though our new website makes that more of a snap than ever before. I do have some editorial quirks, like using a comma before and in a series, banishing most ellipses and italics, and reserving exclamation marks for actual exclamations. You might find some differences among the staff here, and it's because we've never made much effort to standardize. In general, our habits are very similar.

What I'm not going to do is mess with your "voice." It's part of why I like the story in the first place, so you're not going to see me swap major words very often, unless a verb is just wrong. (Not that I can think of a time that a verb was wrong.) I'm also generally not a scene slasher, though one of our authors reminded me recently I cut the opening scene from his story years ago. Upon rereading it, I agreed with myself that I still would have cut it, so there.

A word on mistakes: they happen, though we do our best to avoid them, of course. Every editor reads every story. The story goes to one editor for editing and galleys go back to the author for final approval. I often read the story again before formatting it for the issue – in fact, we all try to go over the whole issue. Even so, it seems we end up with a mistake or two. Most times a reader or the writer catches it. But we want to know and fix them! Unlike print, our electronic issues can be repaired at any time. So we appreciate (albeit with a cringe) when someone points out a mistake. But as a writer, the best thing you can do to help us in our job is to send as clean a copy as possible.

15 December 2009

Your Writing is Getting Better

I watched a DVD of one of the first episodes of "Seinfeld" the other night. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld commented on the episode as it played. They basically tore their own writing apart. Sure, they out pointed a few places that worked, but otherwise they talked about how the dialogue was too slow, how they put in characters they didn't need, and, how, overall, the episode felt like a "high school play."

Do these comments surprise you? They shouldn't. As authors, we have to realize that the more we write, the better we get. When we're writing our first novel, our first story, and, yes, even our first sit-com, we don't see the flaws. We think it is good, maybe brilliant. But when we look back on our earlier work, we can see that it is rough and it has flaws. The later episodes of Seinfled are much better than the first couple of seasons. One of the reasons for this is that the writing got better. David and Seinfeld began to understand what worked and what didn't--even if they didn't realize that at the time.

I often have to keep in mind that writing is not just an art; it's a process. Most authors work for many years before they get published--and that's probably a good thing. We want people to read our best stuff--not our early attempts that feel like high school plays.

14 December 2009

First Page Game

Text 666 for Mom

“Ever notice that when you text the word mom on your cell, you’re typing 666?”

Mary took out her cell phone, the same model as her sister’s but in a different color. She flipped up the lid and looked at the keypad. Sure enough, the M and the O were both under the number 6.

“I never thought about it. Dang it! I told dad we needed the full keyboard phones. Now I’m going to think about that every time I text her.”

“It gets worse,” Teri said conspiratorially, “There’s this legend, right? That when they had those dial phones, if you dialed 666, it connected to someone.”

Mary was alert. “Get out!”

“Seriously!” The sib lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “There’d be no one on the line, but if you said your most secret wish, it’d come true.”

The blonde girl swallowed hard, engrossed in her sister’s tale. “And then?” She knew there was always an “and then.”

Teri leaned closer to sib. “And then, the next day. . . someone you love. . . dies!”

Mary gasped and trembled until Teri broke out in laughter. At first Mary was mad, but then realized how ridiculous it all was. She giggled along like a little girl, belying her sixteen years. “Well, Mom can be a bitch, so I guess the numbers make sense.”

First of all, great title.

I like the mechanics of this start, too. It foreshadows what's to come, gives me enough of a taste even though the author doesn't quite lay out the story problem, and feels focused when paired with the title. I'm a sucker for focus in short fiction. The dialogue leaves all sorts of fun stuff running through my head—especially because I recall that legend! At a certain impressionable age, you couldn’t have gotten me to dial 666 on rotary dial for a new pony.

I have a few nitpicks, though. One is the use of the word "sib." It distracts me. They're sisters, so maybe that's part of their shared lingo, but if so, I'd like to see something more original. I also think this writer is skilled enough to banish adverbs. Not to be a Nazi about them – I've thrown down a few myself. But in this case the opening is compelling and I'm already getting a picture of the sisters via their dialogue, so I don't think conspiratorially is needed. Ditto more telling phrases like: Mary was alert and engrossed in her sister’s tale. I think that real estate can be put to better use - either a bit of character description, setting (there's no setting, the characters are "floating") or to further the plot. You see what I alluded to there, longtime readers? Our three-legged stool of plot/character/setting that holds up every scene.

Speaking of an impressionable age, I also don't know that I'm buying Mary's melodramatic reaction at 16. But, I'd be willing to read more to see how it plays out.

10 December 2009

Electric Spec Author Featured in Locus

The December issue of Locus features a great interview with our own Nina Kirki Hoffman, whose story "Larger than Life," appears in the latest issue of Electric Spec. The rest of our authors are named (but not, alas, interviewed) in the December issue in the "magazines received" section. Yes, folks, Electric Spec is your ticket to fame (if not fortune).

08 December 2009

Spec Fic Tools VII: a Paradigm

There's been a lot of brouhaha about "new" author Paolo Bacigalupi. Of course, Mr. Bacigalupi has been writing for years, but his first published book Pump Six and Other Stories came out in 2008 from Nightshade Books. This is a particularly intriguing book for short speculative fiction authors since it is a book of short stories and virtually all of them have been nominated for an award, be it Locus, Hugo, Nebula, or Theodore Sturgeon.

(Interestingly, Mr. Bacigalupi said in a PBS interview that William Gibson advised him write short stories to achieve success as an author.)

What makes these stories so notable? One obvious thing is world-building. In his work Mr. Bacigalupi does an admirable job of world-building, along the lines of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, William Gibson's Neuromancer, or Warren Hammond's KOP. Another reason Bacigalupi has garnered a lot of critical acclaim is his plots are not typical genre fiction plots. Finally, Bacigalupi has a lot of original ideas which I believe helps create his unique paradigm.

Some of these concepts include:

  • What if the Dalai Lama were downloaded into some kind of data storage device?
  • What if people were genetically engineered to be musical instruments?
  • What if science/technology was the most important thing on earth? What kind of people would result from unfettered genetic engineering? What would happen to the rest of the ecosystem?
  • Which is more powerful swords or information?
  • What if the world was ruled by big agri-business?
  • What if fresh water becomes very scarce?
  • What if people live forever and procreation becomes illegal?
  • In a dystopian world, what lengths would people go to get a job?
  • What if people become so stupid they can't maintain infrastructures?

In Pump Six and Other Stories Bacigalupi takes risks with his plots, e.g. barbequeing up the cute puppy for dinner, splattering baby brains all over the walls, etc.
In my opinion, these stories illustrate a paradigm, a way of looking at the world, that makes them more powerful. Aspects of this paradigm include:
  • so-called mundane science fiction, i.e.in the future humans will remain stuck on Earth, there are no extraterrestrial intelligences around, and science/technology will be foreseeable extrapolations of current science/technology
  • climate change is coming and it will have significant affects on humanity; fossil fuels will run out
  • homo sapiens are not particularly nice creatures
  • science and technology will be ascendant

What do you think Bacigalupi's paradigm is?
And more importantly, what is your paradigm?
Show us!

01 December 2009


Thanks to Sam Tomaino of SFRevu for the great review of our issue of Electric Spec. It's rare to read a review where every story seems to be a hit, and it's great to see that Tomaino agrees with our editorial staff. We consider this issue to be one of our best yet.

25 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools VI : Plot

Plot is, of course, the most important tool in the spec fic authors' toolbox. Plot also has to be integrated with every other aspect of the story, including characterization and speculative elements.

To examine plot, let's look at Robert J. Sawyer's 2009 novel Wake. As faithful Electric Spec readers and writers know, Sawyer was kind enough to let us interview him in 2008. As Sawyer himself told Electric Spec, "My next book is called Wake... The theme is ... the waking up of a global consciousness, with all of it happening step-by-step on-stage while the reader watches. It's been the hardest book I've ever written, but I really do think I've managed some cool stuff in it."

I agree Wake does have some cool stuff in it, in fact, it has a lot of cool stuff in it. Wake has two major pov characters, Caitlin a blind sixteen-year-old living in Canada, and an emerging global consciousness. These two characters have their own plots which are strongly interconnected. There are also several subplots that support the overall theme.The emerging global consciousness' journey begins with "Just awareness--a vague, ethereal sense of being. Being...but not becoming..." (p1) The reader first meets Caitlin after her first day at a new school: "Caitlin had kept a brave face throughout dinner, telling her parents that everything was fine--just peachy--but, God, it had been a terrifying day, filled with other students jostling her in the busy corridors, teachers referring to things on blackboards, and doubtless everyone looking at her." (p 1) Very soon Caitlin receives a bombshell when a Japanese scientist tells her "...I do think there's a fair chance that the technique we have developed may be able to at least partially cure your blindness..." (p6) Wow! Talk about a dramatic plot development!

Sawyer does a particularly nice job of utilizing other books and websites while telling his story, such as The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and Hellen Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life: "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world." (p27) These books and sites are relevant to the plot; they help the pov characters understand what's happening. For example, Caitlin writes a review of Jaynes' book which includes "...I think being self-aware emerges when you realize that there's someone other than you." (p139)

One of the subplots involves an epidemic in China, which leads the Chinese government to undertake drastic measures including isolating the Chinese internet from the rest of the world. This subplot has a direct effect on the emerging consciousness which experiences "Worse than terror, as larger and larger chunks are carved off." (p52) Then when Sinanthropus, a Chinese revolutionary of sorts, tries to "...keep this little portal open..." (p60), the emerging consciousness notices "What is that?...Straining to perceive it, to make it out, this unusual...sensation, this strange...voice!" (p60) Suffice to say, this episode helps the consciousness on his journey.

Another subplot which has a significant effect on the emerging consciousness is Hobo "...a very real, very alive adult male chimpanzee." (p89) Hobo has his own mental journey which starts when "Hobo let out a startled hoot. --as a small male orangutan made his way onto the chair visible on the screen..." (p92) "The first-ever interspecies webcam call was off to a great start." (p93) Hobo helps the emerging consciousness attain consciousness.

Of course, the hero is really Caitlin and the reader cheers when she has "...a sensation, a something, like bursting, or...Or flashing." (p83) "...these different...flavors of light, they were colors!" (p84) "...Caitlin is seeing the Web connection somehow?" (p98) The Japanese scientist Kuroda says, "...I was thinking we should call it 'websight.'" (p129) Caitlin is well on her way to attaining the ability to see the real world. Hurray!

During her journey, she discovers the emerging consciousness and they learn to communicate. In fact Caitlin takes on the role of its teacher because "Helen Keller had been uplifted by Annie Sullivan. And the...the whatever it was...surely could also be brought forth." (p287) Thus, the emerging consciousness thinks, "My teacher continued with the lesson, and I struggled to follow along..." (p278) And after a lot of help from its teacher, "My mind was inflating, my universe expanding." (p322)

In the end... I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. I highly recommend you read for yourself what happens in the end. I'll just say all the plot lines and subplots tie together very nicely. Kudos, Mr. Sawyer.

22 November 2009

Shortcuts to Characterization

Lesley's post on characterization tools inspired something I've been thinking about a lot, which is Shortcuts to Characterization. This is important in short stories because, well, they're short.

  • The Redshirt. Killing off a Redshirt can prove the foe is serious. But please give your Redshirt a name and a real relationship to your protagonist (which admittedly moves them somewhat out of the realm of Redshirtedness). When s/he dies, make it count. This is an opportunity to advance plots and create reversals within your protag, so make your Redshirt work for you.
  • Less is More. Keep as few characters as possible in your story, and try to keep only two talking in a scene at once. If you must have more than two present, then give a reason for one or more of them not to talk--busy them with readying the ship for flight, make them an underling (who will perhaps spout off with something surprisingly helpful or do something stupid to raise the stakes), or perhaps an alien who doesn't have their language.
  • Show Me The Money. Showing takes far less real estate than telling. Just let your character be who s/he is. No need to explain every action as long as they are true to character.
  • Fightclub. Deep conflict brings out your characters' real colors. Experiment with keeping every word they say and every action conflictual and watch your character shine.
  • Drop the History Lesson. We don't need to know everything that led up to this point in your protagonist's life. Devise a simple reason rooted in character - key word being simple. Certain people just draw conflict, by way of their career, personality, upbringing, or position in life. And there is a certain elegance in simplicity.

18 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools V : Characterization

Another crucial tool for the spec fic author is characterization. Old Man's War (OMW), the 2005 novel by John Scalzi, was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award for good reason. Scalzi does an excellent job with characterization via the first-person narrative of protagonist John Perry. Scalzi creates a realistic, sympathetic and empathetic character by showing us John's actions, speech and thoughts.

The first paragraph of OMW is excellent: "I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army." (OMW p7) Immediately the reader learns the protagonist's age, the fact that he's a widower, and the fact that he's willing to fight for his country--or planet, as we find out later. Both the facts that he's a widower and he's willing to fight to protect others makes him sympathetic right off the bat, moreover, the reader identifies with, i.e. empathizes with, him because he's sympathetic. The author also piques the reader's interest with a seeming inconsistency: how can a seventy-five year old join the army?

In chapter two, Scalzi uses a device to make characters more sympathetic, namely, they thwart a very unsympathetic character: Leon says, "There's nothing in the Bible that says we should be stuck on Earth while a bunch of brownies, which don't even believe in Jesus, thank you very much, fill up the galaxy. And it certainly doesn't say anything about us protecting the little bastards while they do it." (OMW p26)
John says, "But I say unto you, Love your enemies.... Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust..." (OMW p26)
And in response, "Leon turned lobster red. 'You're both out of your fucking gourds,' he said, and stomped off as fast as his fat would carry him." (OMW p26) This scene works very well to endear the reader to John because Leon is so unpleasant and 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'.

When other people like the protagonist, the reader likes the protagonist. Thus John collects friends such as Jesse, Harry, Thomas, Susan, Maggie, and Alan, and they all have an easy camaraderie. For example,
"This is my roommate, Alan Rosenthal," he [Harry] said, by way of introduction.
"Formerly known as Sleeping Beauty," I said.
"About half of that description is right," Alan said. "I am in fact devastatingly beautiful." I introduced Harry and Alan to Susan and Thomas.
...Harry said to me ...."...Alan here is a theoretical physicist. Smart as a whip."
"And devastatingly beautiful," Susan piped in.
(OMW pp48-9)

A significant way to make characters appealing is to show them caring about others. Scalzi does this extremely effectively:
...we became friends, and close friends at that, in the short period of time we had together. It's no exaggeration to say that I became as close to Thomas, Susan, Alan, Harry, Jesse and Maggie as I had to anyone in the last half of my 'normal' life. We became a band, and a family... We gave one another someone to care about, which was something we needed in a universe that didn't know or cared that we existed. We bonded. ...And as the Henry Hudson drew closer to our final destination, I knew I was going to miss them. (OMW p105)
When John's band of friends, the Old Farts, get assignments in other parts of the galaxy, they resolve,
"Let's do it," Harry said. "Let's be our own little family. Let's look out for each other, no matter where we are."
"Now you're getting misty, too," Susan said.
..."A pact, then," I said. "To stay the Old Farts, through thick and thin. Look out, universe." I held out my hand. One by one, each of the Old Farts put their hand on mine.
"Christ," Susan said, as she put her hand on the pile. "Now I'm misty."
"It'll pass," Alan said. Susan hit him lightly with her other hand.
We stayed that way as long as we could.
(OMW p109)
Thanks to Scalzi, the reader also feels like part of the family and gets 'misty' as well.

These personal relationships are utilized effectively throughout the remainder of the book. The reader feels sorry for and sympathizes with John when his new family meets with disaster, for example, "Maggie was the first of the Old Farts to die." (OMW p162) John describes Maggie's death:
She was my friend. Briefly, she was my lover. She was braver than I ever would have been in the moment of death. And I bet she was a hell of a shooting star. (OMW pp163-164)

In Part II of OMW, Scalzi changes gears a bit and shows his characters at war. A reader instinctively admires a character that protects others. These characters are, moreover, sympathetic because they are realistically afraid but continue to fight to defend humanity anyway. Isn't that the epitome of courage? John has a very difficult time in his first battle when his fellow soldier Watson is killed, which the reader can empathize with.The reader furthermore wants to identify with John because he turns out to be a very good soldier. For example, in the first battle, he discovers a way to kill the enemy by using two shots. "I forwarded the firing specification to Watson and Viveros; Viveros forwarded it up the chain of command." (OMW p155) "We won. The double-bullet rifle technique thinned out the Consu herd by a substantial amount..." (OMW p157) John continues to be an admirable soldier with good ideas for the rest of the novel.

In part III, Scalzi creates a final, very effective, aspect to John's characterization which is introduced when John is near death:
A warm hand on the side of what's left of my face. "Hey," the familiar voice says. "Hey. You're all right now. It's okay. ..."
Her face comes into view. I know the face. I was married to it.
Kathy has come for me.
I weep. I know I'm dead. I don't mind.
(OMW p211)
John suffers and the reader suffers through him and for him.
When John approaches the mysterious woman for the first time the reader is right there with him:
I stopped as I got a look at her face...
"It's not nice to stare," the woman said, using Kathy's voice. ...
"I'm sorry, I don't really mean to intrude,” I said. "I was just wondering if you might recognize me."
She flickered her eyes up and down on me. "I really don't," she said.
(OMW 234)
Again, the reader feels for John.

Since Scalzi knows what he's doing, this Kathy/not-Kathy issue is resolved by the time OMW concludes.
Therefore, in OMW, Scalzi uses every trick in the book (except maybe saving babies and/or puppies) and successfully shows us John's actions, speech and thoughts to make the reader care about him. Kudos, Mr. Scalzi.

13 November 2009

Science Fiction influences European Space Agency

Jim Gunn was kind enough to pass along this very interesting article the European Space Agency put together in which they "review the past and present science fiction...to identify and asses innovative technologies and concepts described therein which could possible be developed further for space applications."
The report includes:
  • Introduction
  • A Touch of Science in Your Fiction
  • The Allure of Vinyl Space Suits
  • A Few Thoughts about Ideas and Images in Science Fiction
  • The Exploration of Space by Artists and Writers
  • Summary of Science-Fiction Concepts
    • Propulsion Techniques
    • Colonization of Space
    • Energy and Power
    • Computers and Communications
    • Robotics and Cyborgs
    • Launch Systems
    • Resources and Materials
    • Other Technologies

  • Appendices

The 48-page pdf article can he found here. Maybe it will inspire you!

12 November 2009

Is Your Story Stuck?

You have a great idea for a story. You sit down at the keyboard and bang out a sentence, a paragraph, even a few pages, and then . . . nothing. You read what you've written and realize it sucks. Or you can't figure out what happens next. Or you can't figure out how to get to that great ending you thought of.

Sound familiar? Believe me, it happens to all of us. But here's a few strategies that have worked for me to "unstick" a story:

1. Add a character. While you don't want to populate a short story with to many characters, sometimes a story suffers with too few. Your protagonist might need a love interest, a nemesis, or even a side-kick. If you decide to go this way, make sure it's a well-rounded character. A cardboard character could just make the situation worse.

2. Figure out why you wrote what you wrote. Did something in what you've written already travel from your subconscious writer brain right to the keyboard without passing through your critical editor brain? Good! It is probably some of the best material that you have on the page. Now you just need to think about why it ended up there. If it takes your story in a new direction--go with it.

3. Set it aside. Let your subconscious writer brain work on the story overnight, or even for a few days. However, don't set it aside for more than a week or so, or your subconscious writer brain will give up and start working on something else.

4. Submit what you have so far to your critique group. Don't feel like everything you submit needs to be finished. Sometimes, just hearing others talk about your story will give you an idea. (Don't have a crit group? Get one--either on-line or in person. They are critical).

5. Look at POV. This can be tough, but ultimately rewarding. Try switching from first person to third person limited. Or vice versa. Alternatively, try telling the story from the POV of a different character in your story.

6. Bang it out. If all else fails, decide you are going to finish the story even if you think it sucks. Make sure you get to the end, even if you are not happy with it. You might surprise yourself when you go back and look at it. Or you may find yourself at a point where 1 through 5 might work for you. Remember that your critical internal editor is your enemy early in the creative process. Don't let him or her stop you!

11 November 2009

Spec Fic Tools IV: Speculative elements

A crucial tool in the spec fic author's toolbox is the speculative element. This can be future/alternative technology and/or science, magic, or any other supernatural element. It is imperative, however, that the speculative element(s) be fully integrated into the story. Without this, the story is not truly speculative fiction.

To illustrate my point, I examine Charles Stross' 2007 technology-laden novel, Halting State (HS). Stross has fully integrated future technology into his novel; for example, the novel's inciting incident is a crime that has been committed in virtual reality. Thus, the investigators must go into virtual reality to investigate and solve the cybercrime. In so investigating, the protagonists discover serious implications for cryptographic keys and the entire European computer network.

The references to computer jargon, cryptography, MMORPGs and virtual worlds are prevalent, e.g. Jack says during his job interview, "We were implementing a swarm-based algorithm for resolving combat between ad hoc groups with position input from their real-world locations--" (HS p66) And in his follow-up interview he says, "Zone games don't run on a central server, they run on distributed-processing nodes using a shared network file system. To stop people meddling with the contents, everything is locked using a cryptographic authorization system. ...It's based on the old DigiCash protocol, invented by a crytographer called David Chaum...." (HS p90) Near the conclusion, Jack realizes, "And there are much worse things a black hat troupe on a capture-the-flag rampage can do these days than just grabbing passwords and borking hospital networks. Lots of critical engineering systems rely on encrypted tunnels running over the Internet, lots of SCADA systems and worse..." (HS p288)

How does Stross integrate technology into his science fiction? He starts with the big picture. First and foremost, Stross claims "SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist...", and real SF is "...a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change..." (www.antipope.org)

Therefore Stross' method is to "...start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects...And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it." (www.antipope.org)

Stross actually criticizes some media SF for handling technology poorly: "The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating 'tech' to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization." (www.antipope.org) So, he is careful to always make sure his tech is an integral part of the plot and characterization. Kudos, Mr. Stross.

10 November 2009

Writing on Reading: The Ghosts of Belfast

This review may be a bit biased because Stewart Neville is not only an Electric Spec author but also an incredibly nice and generous guy. He was kind enough to help us with our website and downed quite a few beers with me and the other E-spec editors at MileHi Con.

So, of course, I got my signed, hardback copy and began reading soon after I got back from MileHicon.

Despite my affiliation with Stewart, I admit I was a bit skeptical when I started the The Ghosts of Belfast. After all, it probably isn't the kind of book I'd typically pick out at the book store. It is shelved in the "crime" section despite having speculative elements. And the premise is dark: the protagonist is haunted by ghosts who will not let him rest until he has avenged their deaths. So, lots of blood and bullets in this one.

Nonetheless, Ghosts really grew on me as I read along. Stewart made me care about his protagonist, despite his many flaws. The book is very tightly written, with good imagery, tension, and character building throughout. By the end, I couldn't wait to find out how the story would finally be resolved, and when I finished I wondered when the next one was coming out.

The sign of a good tale, if you ask me.

08 November 2009

Just a note:

We've been reading submissions. It looks like we're caught up to the first of October. We try hard to keep about a month out on stories - or less, when we can. We're writers too, we know we like to get quick responses. But when we're putting together an issue we tend to lag. So sorry for any delay!

It's odd how styles seem to run in groups. I'd say by far and away my biggest reason for rejection in this set was because the stories didn't quite flow like a story should. Sometimes I had a hard time just figuring out what the story was about or labeling a protagonist and antagonist. We like clear protagonists with clear goals, obstacles, and conflict. It can be as simplistic or as heavily themed as you like, but give me somebody to root for and make me worry they won't achieve their goal.

Anyway, I'd like to get through more slush this week, but writing and life goals are coming upon me with brute force, so it might be awhile. Thanks to everyone who's submitting and keep them coming. Also, feel free to submit to the First Page Game. Heck, send me your NaNo first pages, even. It's just plain fun.

06 November 2009

World Fantasy 2009 Awards

Things have been hectic around here at Electric Spec what with MileHiCon and finishing up another awesome new issue.

Check out the new ElectricSpec issue!

As many of you probably know, the World Fantasy convention was last weekend in San Jose, CA. Let's give a shout out to the World Fantasy Awards winners, in particular, best short story "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson (Asimov's 7/08), and best novella "If Angels Fight" by Richard Bowes (F&SF 2/08).

Congratulations to all the nominees!
More World Fantasy Award info here.

02 November 2009

First Page Critique Game

Treaty Station

The fool was still following him. Kyle took a corner table, with his back to two walls, commanding a view of the whole bar.

The table was made of polished wood, but the perfectly even grain betrayed it was vat grown. It made little sense to ship trees from the surface of a planet to a space station.

Kyle swallowed some of his rum and coke, ice cold with just the right amount of bite going down. The barroom was built for tourists, but it had atmosphere all the same. The bar itself took up a little less than half the front wall. Next to it was the red door he had heard so much about, with ‘HUMANS: DO NOT ENTER’ in large black letters. Each of the walls to the left and right had one door leading out to the station at large, and one restroom. So far, the Mazoids had used the ladies room with no complaints from either species. There were several rows of tables at the rear of the room, and more in the unoccupied area to the side of the bar. The curvature of the floor underneath was hardly noticeable – an inch or so for the whole room.

Five minutes later a man sat down a couple of tables away and buried his head behind a newssheet.

My issue with this is that while you're creating an intriguing SF world, I'm wondering what happened to the fool following Kyle and why that's not foremost on his mind. He's thinking about a vat-grown wooden table, whether his drink has enough rum, and the practically unnoticeable curvature of the floor. I don't buy it. So I feel we've got a little bit of POV slippage here. Either that, or Kyle doesn't care that he's being followed, he knows he can handle it - which might be indicated by the word "fool". But then, if he doesn't care, why should I? That device can kill the impact of the hook. It also feels a bit like bait-and-switch to throw a hook in the front line and then launch into description that really doesn't give us much important information but that he's on a space station.

So the discrepancy bothers me. A more interesting treatment, should all this information prove necessary, might be to have him concerned over his tail while creating an obstacle out of the description. Maybe he's got a talkative bartender or tourists discussing the decor and he's thinking "Shut up, where's that damned tail, fuck, he could sneak up on me at any moment in this crowd." Or even add in how he feels about that. Maybe the crowd is good cover for his escape or dang it, there's kids in there and he can't let them get hurt. Or even, No matter, they're just aliens. Expendable. Maybe if bullets are flying (or lasers or what-have-you) he can worry over what that will do to the space station walls, or thank the gods he's in a lawless place because if he's found in a fight while on parole back on Santon 5, he'd be screwed...

Obviously the possibilities are endless.

In this way you can make scenes work for you in multiple ways, thereby saving valuable real estate: give information about the setting (description), demonstrate the story problem (initiating incident), how your character reacts to the incident (POV and voice), offer obstacles (heighten tension) and then show his reaction to the obstacles, too (forward the plot, characterization).

So my feeling is that your scene can definitely do more work for you.

Thanks for playing! The queue is empty, so if you want me to do another page, my time is freed up now that the issue is out. You can send it after you go read the new issue! :)

31 October 2009

New Issue Posted!

A fabulous new issue of Electric Spec has been posted! Check out 6 excellent new stories, an unusual author interview, 2 intriguing columns and a breathtaking piece of artwork. Enjoy!

Thank you to all the folks that worked behind the scenes including authors, columnists, technical folks and everyone else. You did a great job! We appreciate it!

And thank you to all the authors who submitted, even if we didn't get a chance to publish you this time.

30 October 2009

New Issue Tomorrow

Our new issue coming out tomorrow is one of our best ever. Lesley and Bets already talked about some of the highlights, but I thought I'd chime in with a few more. The story "Bright Wings in the Ebony Hall" will bring you a fantasy with a mythic quality and a really cool setting reminiscent of the Middle East. "Copies" is a near-future sf story that presents some fascinating--and heart rending--questions about cloning had what it means to be human. And, in the spirit of Halloween, our movie critic looks at one of the scariest movies around, along with providing some other movie suggestions for those of you searching for a good scare.

Happy reading! And be sure to tune in to Electric Spec tomorrow.

29 October 2009

Two Days and Counting...

There are times count myself among the fortunate editors on the planet, and this issue is one of them. We're featuring Nebula Award-winning Nina Kiriki Hoffman in this issue. You'll know from the start that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. And how could I, in particular, have turned down the darkest story of the issue, in which a father faces his greatest challenge as a cop?

I'm also feverishly polishing up an article entitled "The New Writing Age". My feeling is that never before have writers had more opportunity. I'll lay out why and touch on changes the industry (and writers) can adopt to make the most of the Technology Age.

Speaking of, we did make a technical change this issue. We're going to offer this issue in online format only. Our PDF and PRC downloads are pretty low among our entire readership, and those formats are by far the most time-consuming part of putting an issue together. I know I can read the issue online easily on my BlackBerry. But I'm also soliciting feedback. So if you prefer the other formats, please write us and let us know!

28 October 2009

New Issue Coming!

Hi gang,
We have an excellent new issue of Electric Spec coming on October 31! We are very excited about it. In particular, I worked on two humorous stories that I think you will enjoy: "A Girl and her Tentacle Monster" explores the drawbacks and unexpected perks of being a hyperspace pilot and "Civil Complaint" will make you see pepper (and other things) in a whole new light.

This time for our Author Interview we are doing something different, namely, interviewing our six contributing authors: Dale Carothers, Erica L. Satifka, Naomi Libicki, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Ferrett Steinmetz. Come read what they have to say about writing short fiction, what writing has taught them, and other topics.

Stay tuned for more tantalizing tidbits tomorrow...

26 October 2009

Writing and Acting

Earlier this year, I published a couple of posts comparing the craft of writing to the craft of acting. I recently discovered I'm not the only person who sees the connection. Author Alexandra Sokoloff has an excellent blog on the craft of writing--one of the best I've seen. Among her excellent advice about creating a protagonist, she states:

But I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best general advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s excellent AUDITION, which is about so much more than auditioning, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, even on a basic level, and it will translate to writing.

She has similar advice regarding antagonists.

I think this is good advice. While you don't have to have a theatre background to be a good writer, I think it can help. If you know how to get into a character's head on stage, then it will be easier to do on the page.

24 October 2009

Mile Hi Con

Lesley, Bets, and I are all at Mile Hi Con. It's great seeing so many genre writers, artists and fans and talking about what we love most. If any of you blog readers happen to be there, please come up and say "hi." I'll be wearing my Electric Spec tee.

21 October 2009

Writing on Reading---an update

I have not gotten to posting reviews of the books I've been reading lately, and so I thought I do a more general post on a few books. Awhile back I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michal Chabon. Unlike The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which I couldn't get in to, I really liked AAKC. It is not genre fiction, but it has at least 1 element that seems a bit on the magical size. The real pull of the novel is the characters, who are deep, interesting, and empathetic. The Golden Age of Comics angle and New York City in the 30s through 50s adds to a rich setting. In short, I recommend it for non-gene reading.

Speaking of non-genre, I'm currently reading Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. Follett is known for his thrillers, but Pillars is a departure for him--and it has become this most popular book, even making to Oprah's book club. According to the intro, the book rose out of Follett's interest in English cathedrals and how they were build. The result is a novel that would probably be billed as historical fiction, but which reads like a fantasy. No magic in this one, but 1000 pages of interesting characters, cool settings, and even a bloody battle or two. My guess is that "Oprah" readers may not like this one too much (my wife being one example), but fantasy readers would get a kick out of it.

I also read a portion of a fantasy that I picked up at the bookstore. It shall remain unnamed because I have nothing good to say about it. It is discouraging that genre books like this continue to appear on the scene. The book is filled with "beginning writer" mistakes, trope plot lines, tired characters, and pacing that could really use a shot of adrenaline. It is sad that books like this get published while better books languish on agents' desks.

19 October 2009

Spec Fic Tools III: Humor

The Electric Spec editors are feverishly at work putting together the new Oct 13, 2009 issue. It looks excellent. This time around, I'm lucky enough to edit two humorous stories which makes me think...

One tool in the spec fic author's toolbox can be humor. Terry Pratchett has mastered humorous writing. Let's examine how he does it by looking at one of his books, Monstrous Regiment (MR), as an example.

Humor is based on the unexpected. As it says in How to Write Funny (HtWF) "…people laugh at two things: surprise and misfortune. We laugh in surprise at the union of two things that don't fit together…"(HtWF p36) Pratchett clearly realized this when he concluded the Borogravian National Anthem with "The new day is a great big fish!" (MR p11)

General comic elements include repetition, switches, exaggeration, extremes, indecision, convention suspension and wordplay. Pratchett makes use of many of these elements. For example, "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman." (MR p132) is an example of convention suspension.

Let's focus further on literary humor. Award-winning speculative fiction author Connie Willis says the two most important techniques of humorous writing are exaggeration and understatement. (HtWF pp61-63) Pratchett makes excellent use of these tools. Specifically,
"The pigeon thought: 000000000. But had it been more capable of coherent thought, and knew something about how birds of prey catch pigeons,*And allowing for the fact that all pigeons who know how birds of prey catch pigeons are dead, and therefore capable of slightly less thought than a living pigeon." (MR pp115-116) is a wonderful example of understatement.

In fact, Pratchett is master at understatement: "'…we appear to have zombies in the lower crypts. Dreadful things…' 'Really? What are they doing now?' Clarence raised his eyebrows. 'Lurching, sir, I think. Groaning. Zombie things. Something seems to have stirred them up.' " (MR p13)

Pratchett often combines exaggeration and understatement together as with The Book of Nuggan:

"It's what they call a Living Testament…"

"This is a holy book with an appendix?"

"Exactly, sir."

"In a ring binder?"

"Quite so, sir. People put blank pages in and the Abominations …turn up." (MR pp15-16)

These abominations include: chocolate, garlic, cats, dwarfs, the color blue, oysters, babies, barking dogs, shirts with six buttons, and cheese.And a little later, Pratchett writes:"'Nuggan, sir…um…is rather…tetchy,' he managed. 'Tetchy?' said Vimes. 'A tetchy god? What, he complains about the noise their kids make? Objects to loud music after nine P.M.?' (MR p16)

According to David Bouchier "A Funny Character is a Caricature.
Funny characters are unusual, strange, odd, perhaps obnoxious and always extreme." (HtWF p23) Montrous Regiment is chock full of humorous characters, from plucky Polly Perk, determined to find her brother, to gruff macho Sergeant Jackrum to their effeminate fear-ful leader Lieutenant Blouse.

In fact, literary humor begins with an author's voice as Jennifer Crusie writes, "Humor in fiction is based in voice, which is why humor is so different from writer to writer and why a strong voice is essential in writing comic fiction." (HtWF p46). Pratchett definitely has a unique and humorous voice. For example, Pratchett writes, "Forget you were ever Polly. Think young male, that was the thing. Fart loudly and with self-satisfaction at a job well done, walk like a puppet that'd had a couple of random strings cut, never hug anyone, and, if you meet a friend, punch them." (MR p3)

Prattchet also utilizes exaggerated or unlikely comparisons in metaphors and similes, e.g. "…but Igor had to be a boy, with those stitches around the head, and that face that could only be called homely. …And even then it was the kind of home that has a burned-out vehicle on the lawn." (MR p138)

Humor in speculative fiction obeys these same rules and has a few extra tools at its disposal. In "Take My Wizard...Please!" Esther M. Friesner advises humorous speculative fiction authors to "Upset the Reader's Expectations". She claims speculative fiction includes "…easily recognizable types…the wizard, the witch, the dragon… When the reader encounters one of these types, certain expectations click into place…The writer of funny Spec Fic often operates by taking these reader expectations and setting them on ear."(HtWF p76) Pratchett makes good use of this idea, namely, the so-called soldiers in Blouse's regiment do not behave as typical soldiers (with good reason).

In conclusion, in Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett has created a humorous, imaginative and unconventional world by utilizing a variety of comedic tools. Kudos, Terry.


Pratchett, Terry, Monstrous Regiment, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Kachuba, John B., Ed., How to Write Funny, Writer's Digest Books, 2001.

13 October 2009

Spec Fic Tools II: Voice

As we prepare the next issue of Electric Spec, I can't help thinking a unique voice can make the difference between a good spec fic story and an excellent one. Let's look at an example...

In Magic for Beginners (MfB) Kelly Link shows off her charming narrative voice. Voice can be a tricky concept to nail down but is an author's unique writing style and is created via such tools as diction (style of expression and vocabulary), syntax (sentence construction), and punctuation. The stories in MfB differ significantly in plot and character but the reader easily recognizes Link's consistent voice in how the stories are expressed.

Link's voice is personal and intimate; it's as if the author is sitting next to you on the couch, leaning forward telling you, and you alone, a story. She doesn't explain; she assumes you, her friend, know exactly what she's talking about. She doesn't introduce characters such as Henry, Catherine, Carleton, and Tilly in “Stone Animals”; it's as if she's resuming an earlier conversation with the reader about them. For example, in “Stone Animals” the son, Carleton, is introduced via, "Carleton was running up and down the staircase, slapping his heels down hard, keeping his head down and his hands folded around the banister." (p71) In “Catskin”, the witch is introduces via "Cats went in and out of the witch's house all day long." (p125) The protagonist of “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” is introduced via "This guy Sap is at a party out in the suburbs." (p159)

Link writes of the fantastic and the surreal in a matter-of-fact manner. For example, in “The Faery Handbag”, "The faery handbag: It's huge and black and kind of hairy. ...Fairies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it's true." (pp 2-3) We also see this in “The Hortlak”, "The zombies came in, and he was polite to them, and failed to understand what they wanted, and sometimes real people came in and bought candy or cigarettes or beer." (p 28) In “Stone Animals” Link writes, "He sits on his rabbit, legs pressed against the warm, silky, shining flanks .... He has something in his other hand ...a spear. All around him, the others are sitting on their rabbits, waiting patiently, quietly." (p121

In places Link's voice approaches stream-of-consciousness. For example, in “The Faery Handbag”: "It's kind of like if you went through the wardrobe in the Narnia books, only instead of finding Aslan and the White Witch and horrible Eustace, you found this magic clothing world--instead of talking animals, there were feather boas and wedding dresses and bowling shoes, and paisley shirts and Doc Martens and everything hung up on racks so that first you have black dresses, all together, like the world's largest indoor funeral, and then blue dresses--all the blues you can imagine--and then red dresses and so on." (p1) This stream-of-consciousness is very informal; it's as if the reader has a line directly into the author's mind. And when that author is Link that's a real treat.

09 October 2009

info on new issue and MileHiCon

Hi gang,
By now, all the authors in hold-for-voting should have been contacted with either a "yeah" or "nay". Again, thanks, all, for submitting. The stories we've selected are excellent! We can't wait for you to read them. We are busy processing the stories, and we have lined up some neat cover art. We are doing something different this time for the Author Interview: we're interviewing the contributing authors for this issue. It should be fun!
Check out the new issue of Electric Spec on October 31, 2009! :)

In other news, all the Electric Spec editors will be appearing on panels at Mile Hi Con October 23-25 in Denver. Some tentative panels include:

  • Editor Lesley on "The Science of Science Fiction", "The Future of Energy: Star Trek or Stone Age?", "Hollywood vs. Science".
  • Editor Betsy on "Must Action/Adventure = Dumb/Mindless" and "Stories, Art Direction & Web Design for Online Magazines"
  • Editor Dave on "Scams Aimed at Writers" and "Plot Devices or McGuffins"

Additionally, at least one Electric Spec author will also be featured: Stuart Neville, who's first novel just came out in the U.S. The Ghosts of Belfast.
Go, Stuart!

Come check out Mile Hi Con if you're in the area!

05 October 2009

First page Critique Game #11

While you're waiting on results for our next issue (and it's awesome, if I might say) I thought I'd throw out a new First Page Entry for your perusal.

Dr. Roy Motts eyed Mandy’s lifeless body lying on the steel slab. Lacerations decorated her face, and the fatal sever to the carotid artery launched his stomach into an audible churn.

He rested his hands on his Twinkie-padded belly. “I’m so glad Hal wasn’t in the car with you,” he mumbled under his breath and looked downward.

“Me too,” a voice said with a whisper.

Startled, Roy looked up and saw Mandy sitting, staring at him. Her dark-rooted blond hair flowed over her shoulders and her green eyes sparkled.

“Whoa.” Roy stumbled back. He squinted at the body still lying on the slab then to the apparition of Mandy sitting next to it.

She smiled.

“What’s happening?” He tugged his shirt collar. It suddenly felt like a choker pulled three notches too tight.

“Okay, here’s the scoop. I’m a Keeper.” She hopped down from her perch. “Or I was a Keeper. I’ve only been dead a few hours, so I’m not used to the past tense talk yet.”

Roy’s mouth fell agape.

“There is something you need to see.” Mandy reached out and grabbed his arm.

As if plummeting down on a rollercoaster, Roy’s stomach dropped. The floor beneath him fell away, then with an abrupt jerk, returned to support him.

Once the sickening motion ended, Roy opened his eyes. His neck muscles knotted.

They were at the accident scene.

“How’d we get here? How am I seeing you?”

Kudos on this one for throwing a problem up front, or at least throwing your main character for a loop. We've got a dead Keeper chick who's dragging someone back to the scene of her accident. This alludes to "mystery." But I think this first page real estate could be put to still better use. What is Roy to Mandy and vice versa? At first glance I thought he was the M.E. but then the mention of Hal threw me. Who is Hal? Really, who are all these people and how are they connected? I don't get a feeling of sadness from Roy, if he is sad (maybe he isn't). Also, Mandy seems awfully chipper for being dead. Not a dealbreaker; it just struck me. I think it'll take some explanation at some point.

No real comments on the writing at all. It seems fine. I rather like "Twinkie-padded belly." As an aside, I wonder if this is meant to date the story. I know they still sell Twinkies, but does anyone still eat them? I did, as a kid, lo these 30 years ago. :)

So really, just a few more specifics to ground me, and I think I'd be hooked to read more.

Editors are subjective...

I've been getting my fair share of writerly rejections lately so as the editorial staff heads into the production meeting for the next issue of Electric Spec I am feeling a lot of sympathy for our potential authors. The editors of Electric Spec do strive to be fair and objective when choosing stories for the issues. However, there are subjective elements as well as aspects such as issue balance and the like. All the stories in our current batch of hold-for-voting are very good. So, I guess my take-home message is even if we don't ultimately pick your story: Kudos, hold-for-voting authors! Good job!

Stay tuned for more info about the new issue.

01 October 2009

How does fantasy enter?

While First-Page guru Betsy is away at Author Fest, I submit the following for your consideration...
How does the fantastic enter a fantasy?

In Rhetorics of Fantasy (RoF) Farah Mendlesohn outlines a classification system which is about "the way in which a text becomes fantasy, or alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader's relationship to this." (RoF p xiv).

Here, I consider four different types of fantasies: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive and the liminal. These differ in how the reader perceives the fantastic elements. Mendlesohn says "In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic" while "...in the immersive fantasy we are allowed no escape." (RoF p xiv). Mendlesohn furthermore says, in intrusion fantasies, "Fantasy and 'reality' are often kept strictly demarcated…" (RoF p xxii) while in liminal fantasies, "…the fantastic leaks back through the portal." (RoF p xxiii)

Many fantasies also have some formulaic elements; let's look at each of the four types of fantasy in turn.
In both portal and quest fantasies the fantasy world is an unknown place, i.e. the reader is a stranger to the world, namely,
"a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place." (RoF p1)
Portal-Quest fantasies furthermore are structured around "...reward and the straight and narrow path." (RoF p5)
In fact, "...it is the unquestionable purity of the tale that holds together the shape of the portal-quest narrative." (RoF p7) One could say "...the insistence of the fixedness of history and of learning, divides quest fantasy from immersive fantasy." (RoF p16)

The role of the reader is quite different in immersive fantasies, namely, they invite "...us to share not merely a world, but a set of assumptions." (RoF p xx)
The reader does "not enter into the immersive fantasy, we are assumed to be of it..." (RoF p xx) In other words, the reader and "...the point of view characters of an immersive fantasy must take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded..." (RoF p xxi) and the fantasy world must "...function on all levels as a complete world." (RoF p59)
A unique quality of immersive fantasies is often “the creation of a vocabulary that claims meaning but reveals itself, if at all, only through context, which builds the sense of story and world behind what we actually see." (RoF p83) Science fiction could be labeled immersive fantasy in this classification system.

According to Mendlesohn, intrusion fantasies are quite formulaic, and in fact, "Among the intrusion fantasies, the regularity of the formula is almost overwhelming." (RoF p153) "The entire trajectory of the intrusion fantasy; the sense of threat, of waiting, and of repulsion of the horror. [is]…an episodic structure in which the whole is made up of many identical parts." (RoF p130) It should be noted that "…much of modern horror fits in the very center of the intrusion fantasy subset…" (RoF p142)
Something that is relatively unique to intrusion fantasies is " …the protagonist and the reader are never expected to become accustomed to the fantastic." (RoF p xxii) This means "…intrusion fantasy…relies heavily on the escalation of effect. Intrusions begin small and often quite distant. They increase in magnitude, in scope, or in the number of victims." (RoF p116)
Another quintessential quality of the intrusion fantasy, according to Mendlesohn is "… each is 'concluded'." (RoF p116) Moreover, "However mysterious the ending, there is the sense that there can be no next. We are left suspended on the edge of the void. Any next would be an anticlimax." (RoF p117)

Mendlesohn says, "Liminal fantasy is rare." (RoF p xxiii) Other possible terms for liminal fantasy are "hesitation or uncertainty…" fantasy. (RoF p xxiii) Instead of liminal fantasy, Mendlesohn considered the term "…'possible fantasy,' … Liminal fantasy creates possible readings." (RoF p 183) Whatever you call it, in such fantasies, a "…seemingly ordinary story feels like fantasy. We somehow know that it is the fantastic." (RoF p xxiii) She says further, "Liminal fantasy … was that form of fantasy which estranges the reader from the fantastic as seen and described by the protagonist …" (RoF p182)
This concept can be a bit difficult to understand. Mendlesohn states, "The anxiety and the continued maintenance and irresolution of the fantastic becomes the locus of the 'fantasy'. The liminal moment that maintains the anxiety around this material temptation assists the creation of the tone and mode that we associate with the fantastic: its presence is represented as unnerving, and it is this sense of the unnerving that is at the heart of the category I have termed liminal." (RoF p xxiii)
Mendlesohn concludes "…liminal fantasy, of all the forms of the fantastic, may be that which most requires that its readers be steeped in the conventions of fantasy, may indeed prove to be the purest form of the fantastic…."(RoF p245)

Phew! Complicated stuff! So, what's your fantasy? Portal? Quest? Immersive? Intrusive? Liminal? Whatever it is, feel free to send it along to ElectricSpec. :)

28 September 2009

Writing on Reading: Spin

Here I continue our occasional literary analysis in hopes of learning something about spec fic writing...
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson (2005), won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel with good reason. Spin utilizes literary devices very well. Among other things, it has two narrative timelines, 4 x 10^9 A.D. and the near future. The near future narrative is told as a series of flashbacks because "Graphomania was one of the several sides effects of the drug." (Spin p48) The narrator undergoes a mysterious medical procedure in which he "... found myself wanting to write again, the urge coming on like an echo of the fever." (Spin p51).

Interestingly, much of Spin is familiar in that there are several similarities with the plot of Spin and the plot of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Spin is told in first person from the viewpoint of Tyler Dupree. Tyler grows up poor with his widowed mother in the Little House “in awe of” (Spin p6) the inhabitants of "the Big House, we called it" (Spin p5) across the lawn, the wealthy Lawtons: twins Jason and Diane, mother Carol and father E.D. While Tyler is the point of view character in the novel, Jason is the real 'mover and shaker' of the story. Obviously, this is similar to Fitzgerald's setup with Nick Carraway, the narrator, living across the yard from rich 'mover and shaker' Jay Gatsby.

Another similarity between Spin and Gatsby is the hedonism in both novels. In the case of Spin, humanity believes itself about to be extinguished, and reacts by doing drugs, alcohol, violence and creating a whole Christian Hedonist spectrum in which "...the robes began to drop and the dancing started. And a few acts more intimate then dancing." (Spin p72) "...just a few hundred pilgrims smiling into the teeth of extinction and loving their neighbors like they'd like to be loved." (Spin p72). In Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes of the moral emptiness and hedonism of the 1920s illicit speakeasy culture.

Moreover, in Gatsby, Nick thinks Gatsby's power to transform his dreams into reality makes him great, and in Spin, Tyler thinks Jason's power to transform his dreams into reality makes him great. Jason terraforms Mars using a variety of “...ebony eggs. ...scatter these into the Martian atmosphere.” (Spin p118) “...inoculating the planet with life” (Spin p119) and creates a human colony: “...we send people. ...if all this worked...they would have to teach themselves subsistence skills in an environment only approximately fit for human habitation.” (Spin pp145-146).

Unfortunately, the greatness of Gatsby and Jason do not last. In Spin, on Mars, “the Fourth Age was ...a longevity treatment and a social institution. But it's evolved since then.... There isn't just a four, there's a 4.1, 4.2...” (Spin p401) Jason goes too far and volunteers to be “a biological receiver” of “...the replicators' hidden second subchannel for communicating among themselves and with their point of origin.” (Spin p408) and his final upgrade leads to his death. In the end of Gatsby, Gatsby's dream is corrupted by money and dishonesty and he is murdered. Furthermore, the novels endings have some similarity: Nick moves back to the Midwest, escaping the East's moral bankruptcy, and Tyler escapes the Earth, going to a new planet where “History doesn't start until we land.” (Spin p452)

Obviously, there is also much of the Spin plot that is not similiar to Fitzgerald's work. For example, in Spin the characters initially believe “the stars had actually 'gone out'--that is they had been extinguished like candles in a wind.” (Spin p12) But they discover “the stars had been 'eclipsed'... by something big. Something fast.” (Spin p16) and they have “an imposter sun, a clever fabrication.” (Spin p17) But I'll leave it to the reader to decipher just what exactly is going on. :)

What parallels can you draw between one or more spec fic novels and other novels?
It's fun to ponder. :)

24 September 2009

Since I'm Behind on my Slush

Slush I Read
by Jim C. Hines

(Apologies to Seuss)

I read slush.
Slush I read.

That slush I read.
That slush I read!
I do not like that slush I read.

Do you like fanfic with vamps?

I do not like them Mary Sue.
Why do these vamps all worship you?

Here’s a tale from D & D!

I do not want your D & D.
I do not like your elf PC.
I can not stand your purple prose.
I want to punch you in the nose!

Would you like a hot sex scene?
I wrote it for my online ‘zine!

I do not like your pervy tale.
Your metaphors make readers pale.
Your paragraphs are pages long.
Your bad sex scene is oh so wrong!
Can people do that with their lips???
I do not like your manuscripts.

This one is in Comic Sans!
My parents are my biggest fans.

That evil font we do not want!
My aching eyes, my weary sighs.
Why can’t you get the format right?
We post our guidelines in plain sight!
I will not read your 8-point type.
I want to bash you with a pipe!

Would you read this in the loo?
Let me slide it right to you!

I would not, could not, while I poo!

You just hate me ’cause I’m new!
I’m too original for you!

Too original you say?
This book is one absurd cliché!
It should not see the light of day.

I do not like your Mary Sues.
I do not like your crackhead muse.
Eve and Adam, Star Trek slash,
Tolkien ripoffs, pointless trash,
Prologues forty pages long,
Spelling every third word wrong.
I do not want to read this slush.
It’s all too much, my brain is mush!

Just one more story for today.
Soon I’ll clear this slush away.
No more vampires, I pray.

This cover letter’s brief.
The format’s clean. What a relief!

This story from the slush.
This story gives me such a rush.
These pages have a brilliant hook.
I want to read it in a book!
The wordcraft makes me start to swoon.
Is that the end? It came too soon!
I read it one time, two times, three!
It is so good, so good you see!

So I will read the slush again.
And wade through drafts by Twilight fen.
And I will read the pointless plots,
And tales of busty blonde sexbots.
And I will read your pissed off mail.
And I will read it without fail.
Yes I will read slush by the bale
So I can find that next great tale.

22 September 2009

An even briefer post...

Many of you may have seen this already, but I just found it and it is absolutely hilarious. From io9.com: Physicists Prove That Vampires Could Not Exist. I'm so relieved the definitive study is in! I was really confused. :)

Maybe I just find it so funny because I'm a vamp--, er, physicist. :) (Read the comments, too.)

21 September 2009

Some comments from the slush pile...

I interrupt the First Page Game for a very brief post...
We are now hard at work at Electric Spec on our upcoming Oct 31 issue! First, a "Thank You" to all the authors that have been submitting to us--without you, Electric Spec wouldn't exist. Second, after reading through slush, I have some advice...

As usual, I will try to convey it via a positive spin:

  • Do give us an original plot. For example, evil murderers that get their just desserts or evil murderers that murder lots of people are a tough sell. If the muse is sending you murderers (!) give them an original twist.
  • Do show us just what we need to understand your world. Please avoid info-dumping. This means your characters should rarely (never?) talk about things they all know. For example,
    "Gosh, those evil Baby-Eating Worms from planet Gooey have sure been eating a lot of babies, lately."

    "You're right, Stewie. And they especially like smart-ass male babies."

    "I know."
    or similar probably wouldn't sell. But, "Help! A worm is chomping on my foot!" or similar would be more effective.

  • Do show us your story. Do include some dialog! Rarely (never?) do we buy a story with no dialog.

That's it for now. I'll post some more if I come across them.

18 September 2009

first page critique game # 10

Sorry so long! It's been a big week catching up on sleep and various other projects after conference. A word: we're running a bit low on first pages, so feel free to tell your friends to submit. If they dare. Bwahahahaha! Okay, kidding. I aim for constructive, but I do admit I'm less forgiving on these than I am on my critiques for writing buddies. This is me, trying to show you how I think as an editor. And really, I don't know what you're aiming for besides what you show me here. Anyway, here goes...

Suicide Extinct
Sardonyx Nash struggled as her fellow vampire looped handcuffs around her wrists and attached them to the liquid fuel line. “Handcuffs?”

“Not just any handcuffs.” Vin Driscol, transfixed his black eyes on hers. “A mage on Venus created them. Silver with a Jade core. No creature – Not vampires, werewolf, or wraiths from Jupiter -- can break through them. The key is on that ledge. Get the crew to release you once I’m gone.”

“Release a vampire stowaway?”

“I told you not to follow me onto this spaceship, Nyx.”

Sardonyx yanked on the shackles, metal clanking. “Don’t do this.”

“Careful. This pipe here?” Vin tapped his long white finger on the pipe labeled liquid fuel. “The fuel line. If you rupture it, the SS Pantara Eve will burst into a supernova.”

Sardonyx slumped against the wall. “Vin Driscol, if you jump you’ll be hanging in space for immortal eternity.”

Vin looked over at the cargo doors. “That’s the plan, Nyx.”

“Deep space will be your eternal floating prison.”

“And being vampires, living forever, that is not a prison?” Vin pushed his arms into his leather, then tapped a code into the wall console. The inner doors jerked into slow separation.

I don't have a lot to say about this other than it's a bit sloppy with the punctuation. I marked issues with bold red font. The vast majority of our subs are clean grammatically and with punctuation. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is a strike. Cleaning up a piece with a lot of grammatical and punctuation errors is kind of like picking up my kid's room. He's more than capable of doing it himself; he just doesn't want to. It smacks of laziness. Grammar and punctuation are the most basic of your tools. Don't let ignorance or laziness hold you back .

One highlighted bit requires explanation: the name of the ship. Don't format for your editors. If you want something bold or italic, note it with underscoring And not _xx_ either. That's annoying because we have to go in and remove those extra spaces by hand.

Story-wise, I think this is a fine start except for two points.
1. I'm wondering why Nyx cares. What's it to her that the other vampire is imprisoning himself in space? 2. I'm also wondering who's head I'm in. I write with very little internal narrative myself, but give us a physical reaction, the cuffs are cold or too tight or a flutter of horror, something to let us know who's side we're on in this.

Really easy fixes, though, and the premise is different enough to catch my eye. I'd keep reading.

09 September 2009

Electric Spec at Colorado Gold

Bets and I will be presenting the workshop "Focus on Short Stories" at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer's Colorado Gold Conference on Saturday afternoon. We'd love to meet up with any of our blog readers that will be there! I'm sure we'll also have gets some tips and ideas for future posts at this event.

On an unrelated subject, if you get the chance to see "District 9" check it out! One of the best sci-fi movies I've seen in a very long time.

04 September 2009

first page game #9

Cobra Cutlass

A cerulean moon spotlighted the center courtyard pedestal displaying a kneeling man, arms separated and tied to the two posts above him. Gazing at the man’s wrists dripping with blood, and bits of scalp hanging from his head, Khoran felt nothing but aggravation.

“I thought the sorceress would castrate you for the prisoner’s silence.” The voice whispered from the white scorpion, Khoran’s demon, his constant companion.

“Her poison burning through my veins was not terrifying enough for you?” He massaged his inner arm, where the Sorceress Evixen Mosk had inserted her poison punishment. Punishment for to Khoran’s failure to convince the king to talk.

Khoran grasped the balcony rails for support and glowered at the pedestal. “I’ll find your son and extinguish his life, Henry -- King of Abana. Though you have hidden him. He will die before his next birthday.”

Khoran looked out over the towers of the City of Abana standing arrogantly quiet at the base of the Gajijen mountains. The prophecy told that on the scion’s 24th birthday, the king’s son would gain powers beyond comprehension. Powers greater than the Sorceress Evixen Mosk.

The incubus white scorpion twisted on her perch, tendrils twitching. “Evixen approaches!”

This is a relatively exciting hook with a problem up front. They've got some guy (the king? Not clear) tied to a post for questioning and torture. So far so good. I like the creepy scorpion—more on it in a moment. Khoran seems maybe anti-heroish, or even evil. I like me some evil protags. And Khoran has a clear problem, even if we're not yet sure what it means to him and the situation. That's okay. Also, some traditional-seeming fantasy, which we're not seeing a ton of. So far so good.

But I've got some deal-breaker issues, too.

I'm not crazy about the present participle phrase starting with Gazing. I don't like 'em in general, though I've used them. It's not wrong, but I've just been introduced to these people and I'm still trying to get my bearings. Who am I following here, the kneeling man or who-ever's gazing at him? I have to get through 38 words to find our POV, Khoran. It might seem minor, but really none of it made any sense to me upon first reading until I found the name Khoran. So while the phrasing is technically okay, I don't think this structure is best utilized in the first graph. I'd suggest moving Khoran up a few notches, even to the first sentences. Cerulean moons are cool, tortured guys are cool, but I want to link up with my guide as quickly as possible.

There's a couple of unnecessary fragments. Punishment for to Khoran’s failure to convince the king to talk. Contrary to popular belief, this tired device does little for emphasis. This info can be easily integrated into the previous sentence without the eye having to pause over a word echo. And it appears again, a couple of graphs later. Powers greater than the Sorceress Evixen Mosk. I hate this kind of trick enough I'd probably reject it based on that. Yes, it's that much of a pet peeve.

Let me clarify. I, and I'm not alone in this, like clear, concise writing. Good writing does not call attention to itself with a lot of tricks and devises. You've got enough cool stuff going on here without mucking it up with word echoes and unnecessary phrases and fragments. Seeing these tired devices makes me wonder if the writing will be up to par throughout. And yes, I realize I just started a sentence with an "ing" word, but in that case it's a gerund phrase that serves as the subject. I did it on purpose so I could discuss the difference. Smooth, huh?

I think there's some over-explaining that can be cut. Phrases like: the Sorceress Evixen Mosk (her sorcery could be easily shown) and his constant companion. And while we're on the scorpion thing, she gets a ton of description and names. She's a white scorpion, a demon, a constant companion, an incubus white scorpion…it's almost like the writer couldn't make up his mind. What I don’t know are some basics, like how big she is or if other people can see her.

My suggestion to this writer is to clean up the writing and let your promising story elements shine.