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 MiƩville'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.