28 February 2011

We're Live!

Editor Betsy tells me we just went live with the new issue of Electric Spec! Hurray! Thanks, everyone who helped make this happen. :)

22 February 2011

New Issue Coming

We editors are busy wrapping up production for our February 28, 2011 Electric Spec issue! It's fabulous! We can't wait for you to read it. We'll be featuring short fiction by up-and-coming authors Dawn Lloyd, A.L. Sirois, Sara Kate Ellis, Jaelithe Ingold, and "repeat-offender" Fredrick Obermeyer. We try to give you a variety of stories within the speculative fiction genre. All of the stories are excellent, so be sure to check them out. :)

Another neat project I've been working on for the issue is an interview of popular Urban Fantasy author Mario Acevedo. Mario writes the Felix Gomez vampire detective series, and as anyone who's ever seen Mario at a book signing knows, the author is very funny. He doesn't disappoint in our interview and addresses such questions as: Was The Nymphos of Rocky Flats based on a true story? Do men and women look for different things ...in literature? Incidentally, our interview prompted an interesting blog post by Mario Why do we like to play God? on Feb 6 (scroll down).

If you can't wait until February 28, the Electric Spec Archives have many, many excellent stories still available on line. You could even check out Fredrick Obermeyer's old story The Ambiguity Broker.

20 February 2011

What Do You Want to Know?

 Sometimes I feel like I'm just casting around for topics. I write on stuff that interests me, but whether it interests you I've no idea. So I'm inviting questions. Any and all are welcome. I'll answer in posts. Maybe if we're lucky, my esteemed partners will chime in as well!

I'm also inviting first page submissions for critique. That's an open invitation, but I forget to mention it. I'll critique your first page here on the blog. I'm happy to keep it anonymous; just let me know in the cover letter. Rules are here. 

New issue NEXT MONDAY!!! waaahoooo!

15 February 2011

a great story?

I gave myself a little homework assignment over the holidays. I tried to find out what makes a short speculative fiction story great. I probably read over a hundred stories from those "Best of" anthologies. What did I conclude? Every great story is different, there are no hard and fast rules. Okay, in hindsight, this may be obvious. :) Another obvious thing: opinions about stories are subjective.

Here's what I took away from the exercise...

  • an excellent story engages the reader's emotions. Note, too, serious emotions such as poignancy, sorrow, or joy are more effective than humor.
  • an excellent story really tortures (figuratively, not necessarily literally) the protagonist. Often the protagonist is an underdog, starting the story behind the 8-ball (or whatever metaphor you prefer).
  • many great stories have empathetic, and even sympathetic, protagonists. Interestingly, this is one of Donald Maass' instructions in Writing the Breakout Novel.
  • many very good stories have unique voices
  • most excellent spec fic stories have fully fleshed-out worlds. The reader feels like they are actually in another place and/or time
  • most excellent stories follow the standard plot arc: the protag has a problem and acts to solve it
  • most great/excellent stories are about more than one thing and these things are interrelated. Often this involves an external and internal plot arc.
  • most great stories involve some kind of originality--a new twist on an old idea, or ideally, a totally new idea

I will continue to study the issue...

Anyone out there have any insights? What do you think makes a story great?

14 February 2011

Chicken or the Egg

Plotting vs Character is often in hot debate among writers, as if, incidentally, one can survive without the other. Lots of folks love PLOT PLOT PLOT, especially mystery and thriller writers, I think, because really, what is the detective without a complicated murder to solve? But character...characters make the fictional world go 'round. If we don't love our character, why write about them? Then there are the Centrists, who advocate vague organic approaches, none of which ever make sense to me because obviously, one has to come first, a plot concept or a character, even if by miliseconds. 

I've worked both ways and I lean more toward starting with concept and plot now. This is not to say I don't dream up characters constantly. They assault my psyche day and night. But they are plotless, unformed creatures. So before I start writing I make myself do the grueling task of plotting, at least in synopsis form. Dinner before dessert, after all. Characters must prove themselves to me. Also, I think as I delve deeper into the speculative aspects of fiction, I find myself wanting to explore concepts rather than characters, at least at the outset.

However, I'm not advocating one or the other. We all have our processes. I know successful writers who start with just a name and a face and go on to sell thousands of books. So which do you start with first and why?

10 February 2011

What I'm Looking For

I've written on this before, but I always hope I can improve on my explanation.

I like Darkness of the Soul stories, characters pushed to their bottom limits and still climbing out on top. Not horror, not necessarily suspense. Gore in print doesn't thrill me either, not like it does on the screen.

Often contrasting this, I dislike a great deal of internal narrative. To me it's often like a voiceover in film, telling what the story's about rather than showing it unfold.  But how do you show Darkness of the Soul?

Character Motivation.

I've been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand lately. It's oftentimes bad, and yet good, because it's gotten me thinking about character and plot structure. Spartacus is a Thracian slave turned gladiator. He doesn't want to be there, and no one else wants him either, but he won the crowd's favor with a great fight. He could give up and die. He's a gladiator slave in the ludis, after all, with no hope of freedom. He faces a future of only death and violence. And yet one thing drives him: seeing his enslaved wife found and safe. (I don't think it's the cleverest motivation, but it's better than him wanting to live just for the sake of living, and it's fairly noble, anyway, allowing our character to do horrible things and yet still keep us in his corner.)

Anyway, the effect is plain. Spartacus is enslaved, but not only to his Dominus. He's enslaved to his desire.  And that gives the character strong motivation around which entire plots are built. Spartacus will do the craziest things, win the worst fights, and the audience believes it all, because of his motivation to save and protect his wife. He strikes a deal to fight and survive and make his Dominus a rich man, if only he'll find Spartacus' wife. The Dominus, incidentally, is absurdly in love with his own wife and has some pretty bad money troubles. Not a good man, but all that gives him some gray areas, and money and status motivates him to help Spartacus succeed. There are, incidentally, worse people on the show than Dominus.

Of course Spartacus fails in the arena almost immediately and is sent to the pits. This is cage fighting at its goriest. (As an aside, I wondered why they haven't managed to make the other episodes' blood effects look this good.) He is going to die there. It's only a matter of time. But while getting the living hell beaten out of him, he scrapes his way up to favorite there, too. He just can't give up, even when he wants to, because of his wife. If he dies, who will save her? Who will hold Dominus to his promise to find her? But the success in the pits frustrates Dominus, who hoped this would be a short term measure to earn some money off betting. His reputation starts to suffer, and he's not earning quite enough money to hold off the debtors.

So Spartacus finds a way to earn his Dominus more money and seal Dominus to the bargain of finding his wife. He swears to throw a fight and die, letting Dominus put all his money on the other guy, if he'll swear to the gods to find his wife.(Religion and the gods is another heavy motivator for all the characters, except Spartacus in this episode. He uses the Roman's beliefs against him.) Dominus, who loves his own wife, sees some nobility in that and agrees to the bargain. And when the fight comes along it doesn't look like Spartacus will actually have to throw the fight.

But then, one of Dominus' creditors send an assassin to kill him during the fight. So Spartacus kills his opponent and saves Dominus' life. He costs Dominus a lot of money, but Dominus now owes him a blood debt.

And that leads me to another point. In motivation driven story,  there's no voice over required (or internal narration, etc). We understand Spartacus lives for his wife's safety, not because he ever says it, but because he remembers her by flashback, he talks to the other gladiators of it, and he's even willing to throw a fight to save her. Her safety resides in Dominus' vow to save her. So when Dominus is threatened, Spartacus saves him in order to save his wife. We also understand the two men are more tightly tied than ever.

The lesson here is clear. Use strong character motivation to drive your plot and story. That applies to all stories, not just Darkness of the Soul stories. Even though those are my favorites. :)

08 February 2011

subconscious writing?

I'm hip-deep in revisions for my WIP. I thought I resolved some problems, so I did a quick reread. And, of course, I found another glaring problem, namely, a large dramatic event happens early in the book and no explanation is ever given. Nor do the characters ever wonder 'Why/how did this event occur?'. Ugh. So, I rolled up my sleeves, put on my thinking cap, mixed some metaphors and ...couldn't think of anything plausible to explain why/how. Double-ugh. I pondered and pondered and still nothing.

Thus, imagine my surprise the other day when I woke up with a great solution to the problem. Apparently, my subconscious had been working on the problem. Hurray, subconscious! If I could feed it some chocolate, I would. :)

The creative subconscious isn't a new idea. In Dr. Richard W. Hamming's classic seminar You and Your Research, he says,
If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up onemorning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer.

More specifically, for writing, Joel Fagin says in his writing tutorial The Subconscious,
[S]ubconscious knowledge.. can add depth and flaws to characters, become themes for a story and also covers the premises for a bunch of useful story concepts ... In a way, this is also pure character development. Those key moments when a character in a story changes from what he was and into what he will be are very often based on this.

And The subconscious works in the background and drops feelings, instincts and impressions into the conscious mind. ...The subconscious also does a massive amount of background processing in support of the conscious mind and is incredibly powerful. ...And the more you do [a] task ... the more refined the program becomes.

So there you have it, subconscious writing! I think I'll go take a nap, er, do some creative writing/thinking. :)

Has this ever worked for you?

01 February 2011

Editor's report

Hi guys,
We are finalizing the stories in our Feb 2011 issue. (We ran into some logistical problems due to a pesky sub-zero blizzard.) Authors should hear back from us by the end of the week one way or another. We appreciate every story that is submitted. Thanks a lot! Closer to the end of the month, I'll tease you with tidbits about our exciting issue interview. :)
In the meantime, check out Editor Dave's post from yesterday about The Art of Reading Epic Fantasy.

How do you do it?