30 November 2010

Why Write?

As 2010 (and November's NaNoWriMo!) draws to a close I'm starting to wonder: Why write? Does anyone else wonder this? Did you fulfill your writing goals for 2010? For November 2010? Why or why not? What do you get out of writing? Sales? If not, what?

Editor Betsy had an interesting post in mid-November somewhat related to this: there is no punchline to life, in which she outlines some of the reasons she writes including making friends, being creative, improving her skills, growing as a person, etc.
It's a helpful post if you start to 'lose the faith'.

Followers of Electric Spec know today is a red letter day for us: we are officially a quarterly 'zine! Huzzah!
Some people who have achieved a punchline of sorts are the authors we feature in Today's New Issue of Electric Spec: RJ Astruc, Miranda Suri, Grey Freeman, Jude-Marie Green, Josh Pearce. Please go check out their stories. They rock!

Thank you to all the authors who have submitted to us. Thank you to all the readers who read us. Without all these folks, we wouldn't exist. We appreciate you.
Thank you, too, to our behind the scenes, tech folks, etc. We appreciate you, too! :)

And now...to work on the next issue.

23 November 2010

Utopias and Dystopias--RIP?

A local science fiction convention had an intriguing panel this fall on "Dystopias in Science Fiction". From what I could tell, folks have conflated dystopias with post-apocalyptic fiction.

Technically, a dystopia is supposed to include a society that has devolved into a controlled and repressed state in which individual freedoms are constrained--by the government/society. Of course, the most famous dysopias are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Thus, by the most strict definition, works such as The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, would not be a dystopia. On the other hand, if we go with the pornography defense ("I know it when I see it") if a majority of people think it is a dystopia...

As far as utopias go,Edward James, a noted SF critic, claims "...the ability of the writer to imagine a better place in which to live died in the course of the twentieth century, extinguished by the horrors of total war, of genocide and of totalitarianism." And so "...utopia has not disappeared; it has merely mutated, within the field of sf, into something very different from the classic utopia."

What do you guys think?

This raises the interesting point: exactly what is a utopia? The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book Utopia, which was based on Plato's Republic. A utopia is supposed to be an ideal society. Historically, literature has contained many utopias.

Arthur C. Clarke's classic Childhood's End contains a utopia which essentially fails. Or does it? I maintain Clarke's utopia transforms into something else.
Hence when James also asks "Why should human physiology or psychology remain the same? Would what human beings recognize as utopia a millennium from now be recognizable as utopia for us at all?" I think he puts his finger on the real issue.

As society and humanity evolve, our ideas of dytopia and utopia also evolve. Therefore, to answer my question in the title--they're not dead, they've just transformed into something else. :)

Send us your transformed dystopia or utopia stories!

18 November 2010

we fixed our technical issues

I think most folks have already figure this out...
Thanks to massive efforts by our tech folks, including Editor Betsy, we have solved all our technical difficulties.
Please use the submissions@electricspec.com email again.
We're gonna blame the whole thing on Gremlin Editor.
Sorry, again, for any problems this may have caused.

16 November 2010

Reading like a Writer--Positively

As you may or may not have noticed, I've been reading a lot of classic fantasy and science fiction in 2010. I'm in a kind of book club with some other speculative fiction writers and we discuss the works.

Warning...I'm about to get on a soapbox.

Writers need to Read.

Writers need to read like Writers. By this I mean they should analyze fiction and deduce what works and what doesn't work. Every classic novel that's still in print has some things that work. Find out what they are. All writers know it's difficult creating something from scratch and putting it out there in the world. It's easy to be negative, to tear things down ==> So, don't do it.

For example, I just reread The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I read it as a kid and vaguely recalled some haunting lyrical images of an empty Mars, of a magnificent extinct race.
Today, as a writer, what do I deduce Bradbury does well?
  • The linked short story format is intriguing and he does an excellent job setting up each short story--including setting--with very few words. The stories have a huge variety of tone from humorous to serious.
  • He makes a concerted effort to address social issues such as racism
  • He makes many references to other works of literature. This makes the work richer. For example, I think I already mentioned "Usher II" in a previous blog post.
  • His writing can be very poetic, lyrical. My memories from childhood were spot on. :)

Classic works are very interesting, too, in that they're a kind of time-travel. The reader gets to be immersed in the cultural assumptions of the times. For example, in The Martian Chronicles, nuclear war breaks out on Earth and all the Martian colonists rush back to help. The characters and contemporary readers of the 1950s were a generation with WWII in their recent memory; they heard the call and they answered without hesitation.

We modern readers said, "Why would they do that? Why would they rush to war?" Times have changed.

It makes me wonder what cultural assumptions we writers are putting into our work.

What do you think? Do you have any classic favorites you'd like to share? Any time-travel via-classic-novel adventures? Any assumptions you can't get away from? :)

12 November 2010


Hey y'all,

We're having issues with our email address submissions@electricspec.com. Some server, techie issue...

Anyway, use electricspecsubmissions@gmail.com in the interim.

Thanks and sorry for any issues this has caused.

10 November 2010

Short Story Writing Rules

Warning: LOOOONG post below.

We're writing about how to write short stories. All I really know is my process, but it works well for me. I have a few rules for myself that I follow. As I admitted in a recent interview, drafting short stories is sheer drudgery. It's fun for a few pages and then each word becomes a trial. Fortunately, I love to have written short stories, and I love how they hone my craft, and I keep having ideas that are too small for novels or novellas, so I keep torturing myself. All these rules are really about removing my excuses for not writing them.

1. I plot.

I don't write a word until I know the beginning, middle, and end.

It takes thousands of words for me to figure out what I'm trying to say. Or I can just think about it without the whole writing complication, and work it out that way. A lot of writers think with their fingers. That's cool. It's simply not efficient for me, and plotting has never been my strong suit. So I have a very guided thought process.

2. I think about my idea in terms of STORY.

That means I frame my idea with the concepts of conflict, internal and external problems, protagonist and antagonist, character goals, rising action, obstacles, reversals, plants... in other words, I pull from my craft toolbox to plan out my story. So when I'm thinking over an idea, meandering thoughts don't last too long. It's a very focused process. Sometimes I have a character in mind. In the plot below, I have several linked stories about these people. But often I have an idea first, something I want to say, and my goal is to plan how to best illustrate it as well as find the right characters to people my world.

3. I figure out who the players are, and trim if necessary.

Each character gets a note about their internal and external goals (admittedly, though, sometimes that's in my head). If he's just some bartender and all he does is serve my protagonist a drink, or if she's a Red Shirt who dies to drive home a plot point, they don't get names. It's important to note that names, especially in the short form, indicate importance to the reader. I also combine characters when possible. A short story is no place for a cast of thousands.

4. I write it all down.

I write synopses and storyboard my novels, but I tend to draw linear plots for my short stories. Sorry it's sideways, but this is more about how I lay it out on the page than the actual words anyway.

You'll notice I draw a line down the middle of my page. That's the time-line, in a linear story. That's because most - not all! - short stories have linear plots. Mine all have, so far. On one side goes the plot, on the other, character notes. I suppose I would draw two staggered, broken lines, if I had simultaneous timelines in my story (if I were mixing past and present or different worlds or something).

Character notes on the left lay out the protagonist and antagonist, their respective goals, internal issues, and then any other players. Sometimes they're named, as I mentioned above, if they get a lot of screen time, sometimes they're not. For example, in this story a messenger delivering a missive from the battlefield to the king's tent would not be named or described at all. He's basically a prop. The King's general, though, who gets quite a lot of screen time, will be named.

The right side is for plot. You'll notice three marks quarter the line. Those are for major plot points. I always think of all my stories, no matter how long, as 4 act plays, so at the first quarter mark, the protagonist must find some way, always ineffective, to try to answer the challenge laid before him. You'll notice our Prince Regan must kill someone to maintain the respect of his men. Not something he wants to do, and it won't work, for sure.

At the center, the middle of the story, the protagonist's fortune changes irrevocably. It is at this point he must fully commit to his course or lay down his arms. Incidentally, I find this works for novels, too, and cures the "saggy middle syndrome."

Then at the final quarter, the mark indicates the launch of the climax, the final penultimate scene.

The U-shaped hashmarks indicate reversals and obstacles. There are no set number of them. Sometimes these obstacles are provided by the protagonist himself, such as when Regan questions his king about the crusade. One does not question his king in public, especially when he's the prince! Sometimes obstacles are laid out by the antagonist, like when Regan is sent to a less important battlefield right before the middle of the story.

What I don't have are any prologue or epilogue scenes, which I believe have no place in the short form. I also have an idealized requirement for all my scenes: they must show character development, they must forward the story, and illustrate the setting/world. In the best stories, all three are so tightly woven it's tough to know where one ends and another begins.

And there you have it: how I turn ideas into short stories. Hopefully there's strategies in here for everyone, but I encourage all writers to think through their own processes. Develop your own. Without some amount of meta-cognition, we can't grow as artists and crafters.

09 November 2010

How to write a short story

We have had a request for "How to write a short story". We have blogged about many aspects of this before (and perhaps we need to organize such posts a little better--any volunteers? Betsy?). Here are some thoughts on the matter...

First of all, What is a story?In essence: A sympathetic character has a problem and tries to solve it. I blogged about this in 2009 On Originality: Write Fresh referring to Robert Silverberg's excellent article(s) in Asimov's Science Fiction: Toward a Theory of Story . Let's look at aspects of this in terms of speculative fiction in a little more detail:
  • a sympathetic character. Character is key. Characters drive stories. See Characterization and The Goal is Empathy for more info. Note: the character does not have to be good but has to have some quality a reader can identify with, or at least be very curious about. Note: it is difficult to pull off more than one point-of-view character in a short story.
  • a problem. This is plot. This is conflict. This is tension. I would say further, a good story has an external problem/plot and an internal problem/character arc and solving the latter enables the former to be solved. Rarely can a short story sustain more than one linked external/internal plot arc. Note: The character needs to actively try to solve the problem. But the character does not need to be successful.
  • I would say a story that we publish must have dialogue.
  • Another aspect to a good story is voice. This is the unique flavor an author brings to the table.
  • In speculative fiction, we also need Speculative Elements including World Building. Check out some more tips for: Outstanding Spec Fic Stories
  • Stories can also include Humor. Although, at the last production meeting one editor thought a story was funny and two did not, i.e. humor is very subjective. Be careful when utilizing this.
  • At our recent production meeting I heard the words "setup" and "payoff". It's nice when the first scene sets up the payoff in the last scene. This means the seeds for the resolution of the story are planted in the first scene. Or maybe another way to look at it: the story problem is evident in the first scene. Note: there needs to be payoff, some kind of satisfaction/resolution the reader gets for reading the story.

So, there you go. Follow these tips and writing a short story should be a piece of cake! ;)
Ha ha. Yes, we all know better, but good luck!

Keep sending us your stories!

08 November 2010

the promised update ...late

I remembered today that I promised an issue update by the end of last week...Sorry!
We, the editors, had our fabulous production meeting complete with many beers.
We duked it out and picked the stories for the November 30,2010 issue.
All authors in hold-for-voting should have heard back from us by now.
(Authors: Please email us back with the contract in a timely manner. Thanks!)
If you didn't get a story in this issue; we're sorry. It's always a tough decision and issue balance is a consideration.

All, please check out the new fabulous issue of Electric Spec on November 30, 2010!

And keep sending us your stories. Thanks!

Going Short

I love it when we get specific requests in blog comments. Last week, we got a request regarding how to keep short story ideas from turning into novel ideas. In other words, how do you make a story into a "short" story, as opposed to something longer?

First, short stories are generally about one protagonist attempting to accomplish one goal. The protag may have a whole bunch of other goals, and his or her world might be filled with lots of other interesting characters who have protagonist potential. Save those for the novel or for other shorts in the same world. While not always the case, the goal of the story is usually a fairly simple one: solve the murder, get the girl, save the princess, avoid the Man, win the battle (not the war), escape the jail/ship/world, steal the money, etc. These sound simplistic and, of course, have all been done before. But, lets face it, its the kind of stuff we love to read about so long as it is well written.

Second, be careful of your pacing. Short story writers don't have the luxury of taking too much time with plotting or worldbuilding. They need to get in and out. (This is especially true of online venues, where longer stories don't work as well.) One way to get a feel for this pacing is to read lots of short stories. If all you read are novels, it will be hard to write at a short story pace. Then, when it comes time to write your story, keep an eye on the word count. If you are just "warming up" and you are already at 2000 words, the pacing is probably two slow. When you finish your story, do at least one (and preferably several) edits aimed at cutting the fat from your story. Can you slice off 1000 words? More?

If you keep practicing using the techniques above, you will eventually be able to write in "short story mode" and "novel mode" so you can sell both!

03 November 2010

Should Selling My Story Be THIS Hard?

Like many authors, I wrote my first novel before I wrote my first short story. Once my first novel didn't sell, I figured I whip out a few short stories and sell them to reputable markets so that I'd have more publication credits to my name. That's when I discovered it wasn't easy to sell a story. The pro markets are next to impossible. The semi-pro markets are . . . well, really hard. Even markets that pay next to nothing can be choosy.

Its been several years since I made that discovery, and I've learned a lot since then. I've learned that my first few attempts at short stories were not a good as I thought they were. I've learned that the best way to get better at writing short stories is to write more short stories then subject them to critique. And I've learned it was unreasonable to expect "overnight" success. Selling a great short story is hard--sometimes impossible. But it can be done!

Here are some tips to getting published:

-- Remember that the NEXT story you write is likely to be your best. Keep writing and developing your craft.
-- Pay attention to markets as best you can. What 'zine publishes stories that match the genre, tone, and style of your story? Does your story fit the theme of an upcoming anthology?
-- Did you get a rejection? Don't let the story languish. Submit the story to the next promising market on the same day
-- Send your story to the Writers of the Future contest. Odds are you will not be a finalist, but an honorable mention is nice--and it's free. Plus, it's a golden ticket if you do win
-- Decide when it time to retire a story. If you've lost passion for the story and you've submitted to more than 15 markets, maybe it's time to let it go.
--Share your triumphs. If you get published, make the short list, or get a detailed rejection, share it with your writing friends. Only they understand how tough it is
--Don't give up. Keep writing.

02 November 2010

SF is always rational...Not!

I recently read Childhood's End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke. You know Clarke, he's the guy that said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As a famous SF author, you'd think his novels would always advocate science, technology, reason and the like. This is definitely not the case in Childhood's End. Very briefly, the story involves aliens coming to Earth and what ultimately happens to human beings.

The reader gets the first inkling of Clarke's anti-rationality/anti-science theme when “the fall of religion had been paralleled by a decline in science…the heart had been taken out of fundamental scientific research..." The novel takes a decided turn towards irrationality when the reader meets Jean, who “...really seemed to think that there was something in this business of telepathy and second sight." The aliens claim "...she may be the most important human being alive." Toward the end of Clarke's story, the Overlords' suspicions are proven correct and Jean's children transform into something else--the next stage of humanity.

In the big climax the Overlords explain what happened to the humans: “Science, it was felt, could explain everything…Yet your mystics, though they were lost in their own delusions, had seen part of the truth. There are powers of the mind, and powers beyond the mind, which your science could never have brought within its framework without shattering it entirely. All down the ages there have been countless reports of strange phenomena—poltergeists, telepathy, precognition—which you had named but never explained….they exist, and, if it is to be complete, any theory of the universe must account for them. …your scientists began to investigate these matters. They did not know it, but they were tampering with the lock of Pandora's box. The forces they might have unleashed transcended any perils that the atom could have brought. For the physicists could only have ruined the earth: the paraphysicists could have spread havoc to the stars." Thus, paraphysicists trump physicists, and the irrational trumps the rational.

Wowsa! What a bizarre theme for a SF novel! Apparently anything goes when it comes to SF.
So send us your irrational or rational SF, Fantasy or Horror stories! :)

01 November 2010

2010 World Fantasy Award Winners

As many of you know, the winners of this year's World Fantasy Awards were announced at a ceremony following the closing banquet at the just-concluded World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

The winners include:
  • Best Novel: The City & The City by China MiĆ©ville (Macmillan UK/Del Rey)
  • Best Novella: "Sea-Hearts" by Margo Lanagan (X6)
  • Best Short Story: "The Pelican Bar" by Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse Three)

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!

If you were there, how was it? :)

In other news, we will have an update about the new issue by the end of the week. Specifically...what's going on with hold-for-voiting for the November 2010 issue.