30 April 2009

Nebula Award Winners 2009

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention SFWA's Nebula Awards were given out last weekend in L.A. The short story winner was "Trophy Wives" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Fellowship Fantastic, ed. Martin H. Greenburg and Kerrie Hughes, DAW Books Jan08). Also of interest: Joss Whedon won the Ray Bradbury Award. Read all about the Nebulas.

Congrats to all the winners!

Sawyer's Flash Forward on TV

If any of you watched Lost on TV last night, you saw the weird flashes with "What did you see?" during the commercial breaks. What the heck was that? I found out they were teasers for the new series based on Robert Sawyer's novel Flash Forward. Read about the teasers: here. Read my interview of Robert Sawyer for Electric Spec in the Volume 3, Issue 1, February 28, 2008 issue.

28 April 2009

Every Dr. Who is Different

Every year, the character undergoes a metamorphasis and another actor gets to bring their own quirks to the role. And I think there's a lesson in that.

There's a framework around the character Dr. Who. Let's call that the craft of writing. And then there's the person playing the part. Let's call that the writer.

Like Dr. Who actors, as a writer there are things to that only YOU can bring to the writing table. It sounds simple enough, but I think in the midst of what I call Writer's Boot Camp--you know, when all the "rules" start slapping you in the face--it's easy to lose sight of the fact that no one can write about something exactly the way you can.

Do follow the basic tenants of your craft. But DON'T forget that most important bit of every story--your particular slant. No one else can own that.

See if this sounds familiar. Early on my road to publication, I wrote some weird stories. They weren't very good. Creative, yes, but craft-wise they sucked. Then I stumbled into boot camp (AKA my critique group) and realized I needed to hone my skills. So I did, and I got pretty fair at my craft. But, I let learning craft intimidate me to the point of letting the market, the readership, and my own ideas intimidate my creative process. Craft became reins rather than a framework.

I wrote some picture-perfect stories that didn't have anything to do with me and what I wanted to say, and everything to do with craft and what I thought other people wanted to hear me say, and I didn't sell them, and I didn't have fun, and one day I decided Screw it, I'm going to write what I want to write. Even if it's bad and weird and no one likes it.

So I wrote a little piece about a homosexual shape-changer couple who preyed on humans for food. The antagonist decided to eradicate their kind for the betterment of the world. The protag, though he felt a load of guilt over it, actually liked being what he was. He began to subtly undermine his lover. It was twisty and ironic and weird. I finished it and even I thought it was weird. I knew it was never going to sell.

But sending things out is what writers do. I sent it out.

The fifth market that looked at it bought it. Since, I've found that the stories that most reflect me and my world view are the easiest for me to sell. My latest story is an ugly little piece about ugly, broken, little people. A couple of betas who read it turned up their lips and asked me flat out Where do you ever get your ideas? alongside the unspoken Why would you write that?

I hold that if you don't hear those questions at least a couple of times a year then maybe you're not quite tapped into your own writer's psyche. First lesson, grasshopper: not everyone will be comfortable with what you write.

Well. That ugly little story about ugly little people sold to the first market I sent it to.

Never, never be afraid to let you shine through your writing.

27 April 2009

Writing on Reading: Just After Sunset Stories

Although Stephen King is better known for his novels, he is also a short-story writer. In the prologue to Just After Sunset, he explains that short story writing is a talent different than writing novels. In fact, although King started his writing career by making some extra $$ writing short stories for men's magazines, he says he lost some of those skills when he started writing novels. So, is Just After Sunset a sucessful revival of King's lost art?

For the most part, yes. I liked many of the stories in the collection, but not all. I must admit I've never read a single-author short story collection where I liked all the stories. (If you know of one, tell me in the blog comments). King has several stories where the tension is great, the characters strong, and the resolution is satisfying. The book is worth the read just for those.

I felt several of his stories could have been tighter. I'm not sure if it is because of his "bad" novelist habits or because he's Stephen King and he don't have to worry about not skinkin' word limits.

23 April 2009

On Originality...write fresh

Recently literary agent Nathan Bransford hosted a 'Be an Agent for a Day' contest which was very interesting. He's been analyzing the results and said Tuesday "it's very nearly impossible to be wholly original". This reminds me of Robert Silverberg's excellent column in Asimov's: Reflections: Toward a Theory of Story II which said the basis of all successful and narratives is: A sympathetic and engaging character (or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome that problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of the story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind.

So there you have it: there's only one story. What's a poor author to do?

Write something original anyway. By far the most likely stories to make it out of our slush are original in some way. As Agent Nathan says "It really does need to feel fresh, but that's not the same as being completely original. The originality is all about how it's done, not what it's about." I agree.

So, how can you make your work fresh? Your story can go deep with world-building or characterization or theme or your-idea-here. You could combine two or more genres: fantasy, science fiction, macabre, your-choice-here. You could write with a unique voice. (I'm reminded of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.) Or, your-idea-here. What you think? What makes a story fresh?

Send Electric Spec your original a.k.a. fresh stories!

21 April 2009

Wizards with Pointy Hats

A few posts back, Lesley challenged me to explain how to make a short story "deep." It is often harder to go deep in a short story than a novel, but it's possible. A fantasy novel should have many different "deep" elements to it; whereas a short story might have one or two. 

What's an example of deep? Well, let's take a look at magic. First of all, you've gotta go beyond the trope of wizards in pointy hats with a mysterious source of power. (Or, for that matter, wands with magic words--no more Harry Potter magic, please!). R. Scott Baker's The Prince of Nothing series goes deep with magic. Those who perform magic are called "Schoolmen" because they belong to different "schools" of magic. One school bases its magic on "the analogies," meaning that all their magic looks like something else. (A dragon, a bird, etc). That school is jealous of the closely guarded method of magic of another school, which does not have to use analogies but can get to the "essence" of the magic. Unfortunately, those folks must suffer a disturbing side-effect: every night they dream about the end of the world, as experienced by their founder a thousand years ago. All schoolmen can recognize the "mark" of magic on others, except for one group of enemies. To practice their magic, this group gouges out their own eyes and wraps trained snakes around their neck to see.

It gets more complicated, but you get the idea. Pretty cool, huh? This is so far from wands and crystal balls that any comparison is laughable. Bakker has thought out his world of magic and, by doing do, made it deep. A short story, of course, can't have all of that, but even one piece like that can make it stand out. 

20 April 2009

Handicapping Devices and Structures

I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I like stories with narrative arcs, I like dialogue and showing, stuff like that. Call me boring; that's my taste. And of course there are exceptions, but these are structures and devices I don't generally prefer:

Phone calls. Lots of writers consider a phone call just more dialogue, but consider how handicapped one is in a conversation via telephone in real life and apply that to a story. We're missing out on an entire array of senses, relying only on hearing. Can we really get to know your characters well by listening to them talk on the phone? This could work if it's a multi-pov story, but...

Multiple Points of View. Even in a longer story, we barely get time to connect with a character. Switching can make it tough to know who to root for. This is more about scope than anything else.

Letters , Diary Entries, Captains' Logs, etc. When reading these stories I always wonder why the writer didn't just choose narrative structure. Sometimes a note or memo at the beginning of a story can act as a sort of prologue, but I usually pass on stories told entirely through these devices, even if there's a good arc. They usually lack action and dialogue and rely on a lot of telling. This device simply doesn't provide for showing very well. Unfortunately these stories often contain clever ideas that would have stood their own within traditional narrative.

Flashbacks. There are definitely exceptions to this rule. I have one story in my hold file right now that switches between past and present. It can be done effectively. But it takes a steady hand on the tiller not to steer the boat into boring seas. So ask yourself, is this flashback really necessary?

Violence/torture to shock and awe. Consider carefully whether the threat of violence is scarier than the actual thing. And unfortunately, flat antagonists usually go hand-in-hand with violence. If a baddie chasing teenagers/torturing somebody (even the deserving)/resulting blood baths is the bent of your story, Electric Spec isn't the best market. Think DEXTER rather than SAW I-IV.

There you have it. Anyone have any ideas for more, or arguments for/against my preferences here?

16 April 2009

More on Maass

I need to wrap up my comments of Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, specifically, let's talk about plot. Of course, plot is the events and sequence in the story. What are the five basic plot elements?
  1. a sympathetic character
  2. a problem arises, ideally a complicated conflict
  3. the conflict escalates/gets more complicated
  4. climax
  5. resolution

Short stories should have these 5 elements.

And how about some random tips to finish up? In no particular order:

  • write what you're passionate about and let your characters show your passion
  • infuse yourself in the story using voice
  • protagonists should be larger than life, not fearful,
    have an inner conflict(s) and be transformed by events of the story
  • include subplot(s) that affect the overall story outcome/come together in the end
  • make all non-protagonists do double-duty by playing multiple roles in the protagonist's life
  • and finally, speaking of plot: torture your protagonist: figure out what's the worst thing that can happen to him/her and then make it happen.

Again, short stories would benefit from all these tips.

So, there you have it, what I gleaned from Mr. Maass. I must admit I did not agree with everything he said. What did you glean from him? What did you agree with? Or disagree with?

Do you have any other writing books you recommend?

15 April 2009

June Submissions Deadline: May 15

As we posted on Electric Spec Latest News last night, the submission deadline for the next issue (June 2009) is May 15, 2009 midnight U.S. MDT. Of course, after that we'll consider your story for the next issue (Oct 2009).

14 April 2009

Learning from the King Part II

In the liner notes for "The Gingerbread Girl," Stephen King writes: "I like suspense stories that turn on crucial little details. This one has a lot of them." I like those kind of stories, too! In fact, that's another key to keeping your horror story out of the slush pile. The protagonist, Em, in "The Gingerbread Girl" needs every asset she has--and a bit of luck--to survive the psycho killer. As a result, details become important. The wooden chair Em is taped to is starting to rot. When Em bangs into the refrigerator, some ice from the dispenser spills on to the floor. The man she hopes will save her doesn't speak English. Em's father spent a day teaching her how to properly fall from heights. The beach is mostly deserted because of the season. The waves are high because of the earlier rainstorm. Etc. etc. 

King uses details in two ways. First, they bring life to the story and make it feel real. Second, they pile on top of one another and end up playing a role in the action. Details are another way to transform the mundane into a sparkling original.

13 April 2009

Learning from the King Part I

Much of the horror submissions we get at Electric Spec don't make it past the slush pile. A major reason why they don't get very far is that they are simplistic and, well, boring. Psycho killer chasing the protagonist? Yawn. Date turns out to be a vampire? Pass the No-doze. A horrible monster is on the loose and killing innocent people? Nap time. Although none of these by themselves make good stories, they can be a part of a good story. It goes back to what I and my fellow editors have written about before: making the story about more than one thing.

Let's take a look at how Stephen King transforms ho-um into wow by examining "The Gingerbread Girl" (found in the collection Just After Sunset--review forthcoming). First, start with the ho-hum: psycho killer chases woman. By itself, it is reject pile material. But he adds on. The woman is a runner. The woman is a runner because she's running away from something. The woman is running literally and figuratively. She runs as a coping mechanism to try to get over the crib death of her daughter. Despite all her training, it turns out she can't outrun her past--or the killer. She has to face both, and when she does she is transformed.

Now that's a horror story. Sure there's trope stuff--pain, blood, knives, people breaking through doors and jumping through windows--but it the story isn't about the trope stuff. 

More on this tomorrow . . .

10 April 2009

Fantasy--With a Side of Philosophy

One of the unfair criticisms of the fantasy genre is that it is not as deep, intellectual, or as practical as other fiction. Admittedly, there are some simple and superficial fantasies, but there are simple and superficial books in all fiction genres. Personally, I love fantasies that make me think about our world--the real world--in different ways by examining a different world and then  asking the big questions. What makes life worth living? What is the true measure of a person (if any)? What is the nature of God or gods? What are the limits of love? How do you define justice? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Is war ever justifiable? What about assassination? What makes us human (or elf, or something else)? How much are we shaped by culture? By circumstance?

Give me fantasies that go beyond the bright lines of good and evil and instead delve into the shadows, the twisted turns of morality and meaning. In short, my advice for writing great fantasy is: go deep!

09 April 2009

Avoid phone calls

A very quick tip: avoid phone calls in your fiction. As you know, I've been rereading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. He recommends authors have "tension on every page". Phone calls are rarely filled with tension, and even if dramatic news is imparted, how do you show/describe it in a dramatic way?
And starting a story with a phone call is the worst! Can you say cliche?

I've been having trouble with a particular piece of fiction... I just realized it's because the scene is a phone call. Ugh. Can you say deadly dull?

Send us your phone-call-free stories!

08 April 2009

Make My Job Tough

I obviously am privy to A LOT of short stories, besides the ones I read for fun. My perspective has changed over the years in regards to what constitutes a short-listed story and how to create such stories myself. For instance, I've been mulling over a new short story lately. I do a lot of thinking before ever laying fingers to keyboard. First up, I need to have an ending. For me, it's the rabbit that draws the dog. I'm also getting to be more of a boring plotter in my old age. I find it easiest to lay out character traits and a basic plot, usually on a story line drawn crossways on a piece of paper, with hash marks indicating plot points, obstacles, and reversals. Below the line I tend to jot out the internal arc of the character--tweaking plotpoints and character traits so that they weave together tightly. (Incidentally, I did that for my novel, a WIP, as well. On posterboard, though.) If I'm successful, I end up with a story that could only happen to that character.

All that sounds manufactured, right? Well, whether it springs unbidden from the depths of unconsciousness or is a neatly plotted out story line that took a year to detail, stories are manufactured. I think sometimes writers believe if an idea isn't simply inspired--it just came to me, like I was channeling it, dude--they think they're faking it or something.

We're writers. We're faking it. That's. Our. Job.

Despite my leanings, I don't particularly advocate one method over another. I'm friends with extremely successful non-plotters. Their brains just don't work in outline form. That's cool. But I do think they're more a rarity than struggling writers like to admit, and frankly, a short story doesn't give an author much time for discovery.

I can often pick out the pantser short stories, mostly because they fail to cut authorial discovery. For instance, I just read a story which spent five pages describing a character. I finally caught the threads of a plot on page seven. The writing was decent and the character interesting, but character description does not a story make (to go all Yoda on you.) This was a clear example of authorial discovery--the writer told himself all about the character and forgot to cut it out later.

By the time I see a story, the writer should have a clear idea of the resolution from page one. Give me a plot with stacked odds and dire consequences. Make sure every plot point digs at terrors and weaknesses specific to that character. While you're at it, weave in a subplot that twists the knife even deeper.

Do yourself a favor and make my job tougher.

07 April 2009

What's Wrong with Literary Agents?

Last week, lots publicity arose from a post by literary agent Janet Reid. Not only did I find her post interesting, but also the massive number of comments from writers to her post and similar posts on other agent blogs. It was as if authors all over the country were just waiting for an opportunity to vent about agents. We're not talking about the fraudulent agents here--they're fair game on the 'net.  No, we're talking about agents with clout that seem to be in charge of deciding who gets to be a "published" author rather than "just" an author. (Sometimes an unfair distinction, I know).

As for me, I think that there are a lot of legitimate complaints about how some agents do business. For example, I agree with the many authors who do not like the agents who have a "I reply only if I'm interested" policy. My other gripe is agents who demand "exclusive" queries and then ever respond. Obviously, authors can't follow those agents "rules" or they'd loose all chance of selling their manuscript.

On the other hand, I also think that these types of gripes will do little good. Unlike some authors, I don't fear that a post like this will get me blackballed by some agents. However, authors have to face the fact that agents occupy the ultimate buyer's market. And the more successful the agent, the better market they occupy. So, it is only human nature for agents to arrange the submission process in a manner that works best for them.  Unless a massive change in the publishing process occurs, authors are simply going to have to live with that reality.  

06 April 2009

Know When to Say When

I've been reading slush--more slowly than I'd like--trying to get caught up. Recently I read a piece in which the voice bogged the prose. It was an interesting voice and intriguing story line. The dialect and even the subject matter put me in place immediately. But, dialect and word choice is like setting--select details can go a long way to put the reader in place without interfering with the story.

Weighing a story with too much of anything can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, of course: the fantasy that describes rooms and clothes in pages of great detail or historical accounts of why a military science fiction character can't pull the trigger (right in the middle of a battle--yup, I've seen it). Sometimes it's just the author not recognizing the difference between what they needed to discover about the story and characters in early drafts verses what a reader needs to know in a final draft. (I call that authorial discovery, and it's often the stuff that must be cut later.) Knowing "when to say when" comes with experience, I think, and all of us throw the dice on which details to include or take out. However, employing a distinctive dialect in narrative is perhaps one of the biggest gambles a writer can take.

This is not to say that the next editor won't love that voice, but this editor didn't, for a variety of reasons. As an editor, I can look at back story and description and determine easily what serves the story and what can be cut. But voice and dialect in narrative are different--they infuse every sentence to the degree that paring it down becomes a major undertaking. And, remember, all I see is your story. From your prose, it's my job to determine how easy you'll be to work with and how readily you'll accept my editing. Every time I hit send on my editorial notes I wonder vaguely if the author will be offended. We've been fortunate to work with professionals in that regard, but it is one of the reasons we don't go to the trouble to ask for rewrites from our slush.

But, when a voice overpowers the prose, I have to assume the writer is too in-love with it to see it taken down a notch. Knowing what must be cut is a sign of moving forward in writing. Sometimes I think, like in marriage, successful storytelling is more about what you DON'T say.

03 April 2009

More on Characters

From Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel (read it!), I've gleaned some info on characters. Maass says "..all stories are character driven." Thinking about that, I agree. He further says, "...identify...what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary." I agree with that also. Later, Maass says, "Actions speak louder than words... What is the most outrageous thing your protagonist could do?" I would have to add: an important aspect of character is understanding motivation(s), so the reader can have empathy with said character. Thus, your stories (whatever length) should be driven by well-motivated extraordinary actions of characters. This means the protagonist in your story should not be an everyman; he/she/it should be the person most uniquely suited to drive the story.

So, send us your character-driven stories!

A final character-related quote: "Are not objective narration, first-person and close third-person pov the nearly universal choices for novels today?" Yes. And I would add they are the nearly universal choice for short speculative fiction, too. :)

02 April 2009

A truth more interesting than fiction

The science magazine Nature has a really interesting article "Neuroscience: One hundred years of Rita" that I can't resist mentioning. From a home lab to the Italian Senate, by way of nerve growth factor — Rita Levi-Montalcini is a scientist like no other. Alison Abbott meets the first Nobel prizewinner set to reach her hundredth birthday.

Our fictional characters should be so interesting! More about characters tomorrow...

01 April 2009

Writing on Reading: The Darkness that Comes Before

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to epic fantasy authors, but, for some reason, Canadian author R. Scott Bakker (pictured here) has been off my radar. I picked up a used copy of The Darkness that Comes Before because I wanted a nice, think fantasy to take with me on a long plane trip. Since I was not familiar with Bakker, it felt like a bit of a risk trying a new author while trapped in a cigar box, but hey--I can be an adventurous guy sometimes.

I'm happy to report that The Darkness that Comes Before did not disappoint. I loved the detailed and original fantasy world, the interesting variety of characters, and the intelligent bits of philosophy strewn throughout. The prose was well-written, and the plot multifaceted. My only real criticism of the book was the ending. I did not feel that Bakker had resolved enough plot threads when I reached the "end" of the book. Still, I'm interested enough to go on to the next book in the series when I get a chance.