31 March 2009

What is "Young Adult" Fiction?

I recently read the first half of popular Young Adult fantasy released last year. I was surprised to discover that the first several chapters contained sex, incest, infanticide, and gang rape. It was hard for me to take, even as a not-so-young-adult. I don't want to sound like a prude, but should a book like that really be marketed as YA? I realize that young people have to learn about the harsh realities of the world, but do those realities have to be dumped on them with such harshness and insensitivity? 

30 March 2009

The "Whys" of Epic Fantasy

I love well-written epic fantasy novels. For me, one element that makes a good fantasy novel is a world that is so real I want to know the "whys" of it. I feel rewarded when a get a tidbit of juicy information that explains or puts a new twist on the unique aspects of the world. I want to get to the end of the novel to find out answers to the big questions about the world that have been plaguing the characters (and the reader) from the outset of the story. And, importantly, I like the world so much that I want to come back and visit after I've finished the book.

Creating this sense of world is one of the most important--and challenging--aspects of a fantasy writer's craft. (Perhaps less so for some types of urban fantasy, but that's for another post someday). How do authors do it? I don't know all of the tricks, but here's a few things I noticed:

1) Characters care about the world they live in and want to understand it better;
2) The history of the world plays a role in the present and is revealed in a gradual, logical manner;
3) The world is multi-dimensional, rather than divided into "good" and "evil";
4) Distinct cultures, classes, nationalities, races, religions, and/or loyalties are presented and the intersection of these presents conflict; and
5) Many aspects of the world are not as simple as they first seem.

I'm sure there are others that I'm missing . . . please post them in the comments.

25 March 2009

More on Setting

Editor Dave has inspired me to reread Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. This is quite good and I recommend it if you haven't read it. I may blog a bit about it, starting with setting. Setting is particularly important in speculative fiction, because basically anything goes! A couple things Maass said about setting struck me as interesting: For a setting to feel broadly representative, it must be highly specific. And ...the breakout novel ...creates its own complete, detailed, logical, and unique world. A little later, Place presented from an objective or omniscient point of view runs the risk of feeling like boring description... Try evoking the description the way it is experience by a character.

I strongly agree that settings need to be specific, but I disagree that they are or should be "broadly representative". I think we need settings to be specific so we, the readers, can put ourselves there. That's part of the goal with fiction, right? To experience being someone else. So, instead of going to 'the store', your character should go to the Truhr family's bodega down on 39th Street, where they have pictures of their five kids taped on the old-fashioned cash register. etc. etc. Okay, that's silly, but you get the idea.

I really liked the second quote above. Omniscient description does often feel boring, but when you filter it through 1st-person or 3rd-person characters, it gets interesting. For example, is it ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit outside, or are rivulets of sweat sluicing down Tamara's back, making her want to rip off her wool-blend interview suit? And does she go into the bodega for a frosty beverage... Now I'm rambling. :) But, I think you get the idea.

So, keep sending Electric Spec your setting-laden stories.

23 March 2009

BSG--the end

I try not to blog about media spec fic, but... I can't seem to resist saying something about the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. And what I have to say is: while neat, it was a little confusing. (Apparently, we are all half Cylon!) I did find a very helpful Ronald D. Moore finale Q&A on the "What's Alan Watching" blog which answered most of my questions. There's a lot of other helpful links there, too. So, check it out if you have questions. :)

21 March 2009

Hugo Nominations 2009

As you may have heard, the Hugo nominations were announced Thursday, March 19. For best short story they are:

  • “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Jul 2008)
  • “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick (Baen’s Universe Oct 2008)
  • “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
  • “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
  • “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s Feb 2008)

Read all about it.
Congrats to all the nominees!

20 March 2009

Conflict and Obstacles

Due to some deadlines and an upcoming vacation, I'm a bit behind on my slush. It will probably be a week or two for me to get caught up. We try hard here to keep our response times low, but life does run away from us at times. We really appreciate your patience.

Nathan Bransford has a great post on conflict right now. Go on and read it--now if you like. We'll wait.

Nathan makes some great points, especially that bit about rooting for Duke. But we here at Electric Spec think of conflict slightly differently, though it might be more our vernacular than actual meaning. We tend to label conflict internal and external. Nathan also failed to discuss obstacles, and how they play in.

External conflicts, of course, are the forces (hopefully sentient!--more on that in a minute) that keep characters from their goal. Internal conflicts are more the thoughts and wants and needs and guilt and past that often get between characters and their goals. I tend to think of internal conflict as "characters getting in their own way." I tend to think of external conflict more as "plot". No question we see a lot of external conflict and less internal conflict in our slushpile, but internal is what rounds out strories and characters, making them become fully realized and, well, real.

Sometimes I see stories in which the writer confuses "obstacles" for conflict. I think it's easiest to think of it this way. The difference lays in the goals: a storm's goal is not to stop the Company from getting the ring to Mordor. But the Ringwraiths' goal is just that. The storm creates an obstacle. The Ringwraiths create conflict.

In the opening scene of one of my novels, two brothers are arguing about how to go about searching for their missing mother. That's external conflict, and a bit of internal, as well, because past hurts, doubt, and guilt play into their exchange. Then they realize someone is following them. That's conflict, too. She's an antagonist, and antagonists always fall into the conflict camp. But as one of the characters tries to get away from her, he runs into friends who want to chat, a love interest, bad weather, and finally a gate which traps him in an alley. Those are examples of obstacles, even though some of them are clearly sentient.

I would argue every good story needs internal conflict, external conflict, and obstacles, but sometimes I notice one or another missing in stories in our slush. Maybe people don't think short stories need all this. But each are important in their own way. External conflict drives a story, it's the blood pumping through the heart. Internal conflict provides valuable insight into character. Obstacles can often serve double duty as world building tools.

13 March 2009


Not sure if anyone out there has ever converted prose to film. I've done it. A feature length film is actually, in prose, roughly the plot length of a short story. It's why folks complain about novel conversions so much.

I think it was Neil Gaiman who said he could only write really dark main characters in short stories. He just couldn't stand spending an entire novel with someone like that. So, if you think of the crazy, unforgettable characters we've met in film, some we love (the kids from Narnia, Aragorn as Strider) and the ones we don't love so much (Hannibal Lector) think of them in terms of a short story.

I find myself reeling back into calmer waters, character-wise, for novels. In short stories, I tend to let myself go. Great short stories (arguably, great stories, period) have memorable characters. But I think short stories have extra leeway. Sometimes I find in my slushpile that the characters just aren't enough, somehow. Some of this rests on motivation: strong motivation makes for strong actions which leads to strong characters. But I look for quirky characters, too; characters that push the boundaries of who they are.

I recently watched Transformers, which made for great character study. The writers took stock characters -- the out-of-touch cop, the pretty girl with a secret past, the mother trying to connect with her teenaged son, the "secret agent" who means well but isn't above throwing his weight around, the heroic soldiers -- and they pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be that character. To steal a cliched line from the film, at which the writers poke fun via dialogue, there was "more than meets the eye" to every character. They shoved the boundaries, down to the car salesman played by Bernie Mac. ("Gentlemen, Bobby Bolivia. Like the country except without the runs." ) Bobby was a typical used car salesman, but so obviously more, shouting at his deaf Mammy and making snide comments about cheap-ass fathers. When Bobby left the screen I was sorry to see him go.

Make your readers sorry to see your character go, and you'll find your story in our pages.

12 March 2009

The goal is empathy

Warning: I'm on my soapbox...
Recently, on one of my writers loops there has been some discussion of narration. There seems to be some confusion on the topic. Let's back up a bit...

The goal for authors is: empathy for characters, especially for the protagonist.
Why? Because we want the reader to BECOME the character. The wonder and beauty of written fiction is it is the only medium in which a human being can become someone else. But it can't happen without empathy. Empathy is the identification, understanding and often sharing of, someone else's feelings and/or motives.

Of course, authors have many TOOLS at their disposal to tell their stories and engender empathy. These include description of setting and action, dialogue, and narrative. Narrative is when the author communicates directly with the reader. One could say narrative includes everything that isn't setting description, action, or dialogue.

Please note these tools are used to create fiction and should not be confused with the elements of fiction. Fiction itself has several parts or elements, which include character/characterization, plot, setting, theme (a conceptual distillation of the story), and style (how it is written). The effect created by the author's style is often referred to as voice.

It has been said that the ability to create fiction and other artistic works is a fundamental aspect of human culture and one of the defining characteristics of humanity.
So, why not use all the tools at your disposal to create fiction that engenders empathy and hence insights into the human condition?

Send us your stories!

11 March 2009

Writing on Reading; The Robe

Lloyd C. Douglas wrote The Robe in 1942, but I was still able to find a copy a my local library. I think it is pretty impressive that a novel that was very popular when it was released more than 60 years ago is still in enough demand to be kept on the library shelf.

The Robe is about the son of a Roman Senator who takes part in the crucification of Jesus and later converts to Christianity. The novel has some flaws: it has some strange POV shifts, its a bit slow at points, it has historical inaccuracies, and at times it comes off as a bit preachy. Even so, it held my interest. The protagonist and especially the protagonist's slave are interesting, compelling characters. In addition, Douglas has a way with words. In fact, the book made me wonder if we've lost something in 2009 that we had way back in 1942. Some of the sentences and phrases in the novel had a different tone and feel than what we see today. A bit more formal, but also more precise and elegant. 

10 March 2009

Critique Group is King, er, Queen!

I've been participating in a creative writing workshop lately, and I'm amazed at how talented the people in it are. I'm also amazed that none of the other people are in or have ever been in a critique group.

I would say critique group is king, but I prefer strong female protagonists, so Critique Group is Queen! :) I know/am acquainted with many working authors with contracts and they all have critique groups of some type. I don't care how much raw talent you have, 99% of writers need a critique group. Writers are too close to their own work and it takes fresh eyes to see what is really on the page.

This is true for novelists and for short story writers. Often at editorial meetings, we editors sit around and say things like: 'If only the author had developed the character arc of the protagonist; the setup was there but they didn't follow through. Doesn't this guy have a critique group?'

Dave said it yesterday. I've said it before and I'll probably say it again: critique groups are helpful!

Please keep sending us those (critiqued) stories!
An editorial note: we no longer have an autoresponse on the submissions email.

09 March 2009

How to Keep Motivated to Write

I have this theory that most writers believe that writing is easier for other writers. Those other writers are filled with plot ideas, great characters, and lush settings that they pour on to the page with the same ease that they brush their teeth. In contrast, you just spent a frustrating two hours on one horrible paragraph that sucks and you're pretty sure you'll delete tomorrow. Not only that, but you are out of good ideas and may soon before forced to fall back on your crappy ones that people will laugh at.

Sound familiar to anyone? Those of you who are one of those "other writers," you can skip reading this blog entry. For that matter, you "other writers" can go eat some bad sushi--my treat. For the rest of us, I've found that one of the things that keeps me writing is my critique group. I have a deadline. I have readers. I have friends who bug me if I'm not writing.

Sometimes, writing for the "love" of it just wont hack it. It's nice to have another motivator to keep you going. 

06 March 2009

Job Loss Propels Writer to Stardom . . . Not! (Part II)

Yesterday I shared my theory about "not enough time" being a (poor) excuse for not writing. The other part of this enduring belief  is the idea that we will have "more time to write when . . . (fill in the blank)." Occasionally, this is true: "I'll have more time to write when the wedding is over." "I'll have more time to write when I'm not taking care of my sick child." But, I've found from personal experience that most of the "whens" don't turn out to be true. When one time-consuming things ends, another ends up taking its place--or even being piled on. We feel like we have less and less time because it's true! As much as we try to say "no" to volunteer opportunities, social engagements, new work assignments, and other time hogs, we still end up with too much on our plate.

So, how do we keep writing despite all these demands on our time? First, you need to keep writing a priority--don't get so distracted that you stop writing altogether. Second, you need to figure out times that you can write--even if they are just small blocks of time. And third, you need to keep motivated. How to keep motivated will be the topic of a future blog.

05 March 2009

Job Loss Propels Writer to Stardom . . . Not! (Part I)

Somebody told me the other day that agents were getting flooded with manuscripts by people forced out of their day jobs by the economy. At first I thought it seemed plausible. After all, I sometimes have fantasies about not having a day job and being able to write all day.

But then I thought--naw!

If people didn't have time to write when they had their day job, will they really find time to write when they don't? Usually, "not enough time" is just one of those excuses for not writing. It goes in the same category as "I'm waiting for my muse" or "writer's block." 

My theory is that people who really want to write, find time to write. Now, they might not have as much time as they'd like, but they use whatever time they are given to put butt in chair and hands on keyboard. They produce stories and/or novels. They submit. They get rejections. They join critique groups. They attend conferences. They try to get better. And, all this time, they secretly wish they had more time to do all of these.

More on this topic tomorrow . . .