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New entry May 28

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Books from Critters!

Check out Books by Critters for books by your fellow Critterfolk, as well as my list of recommended books for writers.

How to Write SF

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova, best-selling author and six-time Hugo Award winner for Best Editor. (This is one of the books your ol' Critter Captain learned from himself, and I highly recommend it.) (Also via Amazon)

The Sigil Trilogy

If you're looking for an amazing, WOW! science fiction story, check out THE SIGIL TRILOGY. This is — literally — one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read.


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ReAnimus Acquires Advent!

ReAnimus Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the legendary Advent Publishers! Advent is now a subsidiary of ReAnimus Press, and we will continue to publish Advent's titles under the Advent name. Advent was founded in 1956 by Earl Kemp and others, and has published the likes of James Blish, Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and many others. Advent's high quality titles have won and been finalists for several Hugo Awards, such as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Heinlein's Children. Watch this space for ebook and print editions of all of Advent's current titles!

Book Recommendation

THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock

Announcing ReAnimus Press

If you're looking for great stuff to read from bestselling and award-winning authors—look no further! ReAnimus Press was founded by your very own Critter Captain. (And with a 12% Affiliate program.) [More]








From: Amy Sterling Casil
Subject: Hardcore Critique Advice

Hi Andrew:

Here is a hardcore guideline I wrote for the "60 Second Novelist" area, then
adapted to the SFWW (you'll see that it's general - can be applied to all

When we criticise work, we are commenting for the purposes of publishability,
and  our goal is to help authors to become publishable *and* published

For prose pieces, the following issues are critically important:

1)  Plot - does the action make sense?  Is what is written moving the story
forward?  Sometimes, the pieces are too short or are fragments, so a complete
plot analysis isn't possible.  Most pieces can be judged within the first few
sentences for effective plot beginnings, however.  That's what editors do.
    a) Does the story start at the right place (the beginning?)  Most stories
by beginning writers start far too early - way before the key action takes
place.  Some, however, may start too far forward.  These writers have taken
the advice of "start with the action at full steam" too literally.
   b) Is the pacing appropriate to the story?  Too fast?  Too slow?  Just
   c) Is the plot a real plot (a character, in context, with a problem)?  Are
things happening which seem to have no discernable reason or purpose?  
   d) Are there unconvincing coincidences passing for plot?  "I saw Prunella
at the A & P that afternoon.  I couldn't believe it when she told me that she
had the other half of the key to the Ancient Peruvian Treasure Box which I
had been seeking, the very one which had brought upon the murder of Uncle
Henry by the ravening pirates." 
   e) The ending:  is the payoff adequate to the buildup?  Does the ending
make sense?  Is it satisfying?  Does it arise from character and situation or
is it "deus ex machina," where the Cavalry suddenly comes riding in over the
hill to save the hero and heroine?  Most importantly:  were the seeds of the
ending sown in the beginning?
2)  Hook - Is the beginning adequate to catch the reader's interest?  Another
key issue related to publishability.  Is there the proper balance of action,
dramatization, and narrative?  Sometimes, more narrative is needed, as in the
pieces where the author will begin with a lot of unattributed dialog.  The
dialog might be saying exciting things, like:
   "I'll kill you, Jim!"
   "No you won't, I'll rip your arms out of their sockets first."
   "Darn you, Jim!  Just pass me that ketchup."
OK, here's killing, anger, conflict . . . but who?  Where?  Who cares?  Other
beginning errors include hooks that are a bit too strong:  and I've seen
child abuse, rape, incest, this type of thing.  The reader has to care about
the story and characters first, not be thrown into a situation from which
they will instinctively recoil.
3)  Characterization - are the people of the story believable?  In the case
of some of the work we've seen, one wonders if the characters which are being
written about are people.  Some beginning writers use genderless, nameless
characters.  While this might have been done in some avant-garde writing,
this isn't usually the type of writing which is accepted in the SF world.
 Urge the basics: 
   a) Names - good ones - indicative of character, which make sense.  "Tom,
Dick and Harry" just don't cut it.  With all the great names in the world,
let's promote some creativity in character-naming.
  b) Dialog and action fits with and supports character.  Meek, sensitive
characters shouldn't scream or suddenly pull out Ninja weapons unless it's a
comic piece.
  c) Gender, place, time, dress and manner of characters should all go
together to support good characterization.
  d) Physical descriptions are appropriate to the piece.  A viewpoint
character should not be able to describe himself, unless it's integral to the
plot.  The good 'ol, "Susie sees herself in a mirror" trick should always be
pointed out to the author.  Physical description of viewpoint characters can
be done indirectly, by the reactions of others to the character and the
character's own interaction with the world of the story.
4)  Point of View - whose story is being told and who is telling it?  
   a) Omniscient narrators are pretty much on the outs in the current
publishing world.  The omniscient narrator hops from head to head, from scene
to scene and place to place and there is no single point of view or voice,
other than the author's.
   b) First-person narrator.  A difficult voice for the beginner, though many
people often think it is "easy."  The first-person narrator can only tell
what he experiences and knows. This can be a powerful, but also a limiting
voice.  It is often thought to bring the reader into the story, but
poorly-done first person narration has the opposite effect.  The reader
becomes aggravated by the character, and generally quits reading.  A good
example of when first-person narration is inappropriate:  stories told by
people who are dead or in comas, unless it's a horror or surrealistic story.
Of course, "Johnny Got His Gun," the famous World War II story, was told from
the point of view of Johnny who had no arms, legs, eyes and was deaf from a
war wound - a unique and effective story not likely to be repeated.
  c) Third-person narrator.  Also called, "limited third-person point of
view."  This is the most common narrative style used in novels and short
stories.  The technique uses limited authorial intrusion, and done properly,
can bring the reader in as close to the story or closer to it than can
first-person narration.  A point-of-view character is selected and the story
told from that character's perspective.
  d)  Common mistakes include:
       1. Head-hopping:  switching back and forth between different
characters' thoughts and opinions.
       2. POV slipping:  telling something that the POV character couldn't
possibly know.
  e)  WRONG point-of-view character.  Sometimes stories are told from the
wrong character's point of view.  This is an error in plot, related to the
point-of-view issue.  If the author more fully understood the story's plot,
he or she would have automatically and easily chosen the appropriate
character to "tell" the story.
5) Style - is the writing appropriate to the story?  Style is subjective, but
true errors in style are glaringly obvious.
  a) Tone.  Is a serious story being told in a flippant tone?  Or a comical
story told in a plodding, self-conscious style?  Most common, especially with
younger writers:  inappropriate irony, otherwise known as "smarting off."  
  b) Anachronisms or Freudian slips.  In historical stories, are characters
using modern phrases?  Or, do inappropriate comments slip into the narrative,
for instance, in a tense scene of financial intrigue, does one character
suddenly say to another, "I love your see-through blouse, Frieda?"  Are
characters acting appropriately for their age and stage in life?
  c) Usage/Confusion errors.  The gerund problem is among these.  "Pulling on
his boots, he leapt to the door with his gun."  Gerunds used in this manner
are usually associated with two unrelated clauses jammed together with a
comma.  The author needs to use separate sentences which portray clear and
understandable action and narrative.  This is lazy, confused writing.
Psychologically, I think it signifies a confusion as to what the appropriate
story and/or action is, because most often, I've seen very beginning writers
do it when they are tired or bored and don't know what to do with the story.
Misplaced modifiers and split infinitives also fall into this category.
Sentence fragments?  Sometimes they are appropriate, if they seemed planned
or intentional and are not excessively used.
  d) "Taking the reader for granted."  Otherwise known as "The urge to
explain."  The great phrase, "RUE" or "Resist the Urge to Explain," is used
in the book "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers," by Browne and King.  
     "I'll never darken your doorstep again, you thieving hussy!"  Johnny
slammed the door furiously.  He was angry.  He had never been so angry in his
life. [Thank you, author, I got it the first time . . .]
    Simply put, authors make this error when they use dialog, narrative
summary and action to accomplish the same purpose.  Dialog and action can
both be strong methods of communicating plot developments; narrative summary
less-so, but it has its place.  
   >> Thirty years passed and Monica had never kissed another man. <<  That's
narrative summary - preferable to detailing Monica's turn-downs of men over a
30-year period.
  e) Lack of variation in sentence length or sentence structure.  Too many
short sentences?  Too many long, run-on sentences?  A long sentence or two
can be interesting, but not *every* sentence.  An ungrammatical, confusing
sentence is exactly that, and is never good writing.
  f) Excessive use of passive voice.  Passive voice is often mistaken for the
past-perfect tense.  Passive voice refers to the reversal of the "normal"
subject/verb order of a sentence.  Tenses of verbs serve to indicate time and
order of events.  When writing about the past, or indicating various moods,
past-perfect verbs are very useful, and they have nothing to do with "passive
   "Bob hit the ball" is "active" voice, the normal sentence order in
   "The ball was hit by Bob" is passive voice.  The subject, "the ball,"
comes before the verb.  
  You might see something like "The speech by Mayor Bob was given in his
usual sarcastic tone."  Normal sentence order would be:  "Mayor Bob gave the
speech in his usual sarcastic tone."
  Passive voice isn't a major point in fiction writing:  if it is used to
excess, there are usually other severe problems in plot and style which are
more harmful than passive voice alone.
  g) Internal dialog passing for emotions or plot.  Many beginning writers do
this.  At its most extreme, the internal dialog is actually the author's own
thoughts as they ruminate along the page, not those of the character.  "What
would Mary do?  Would she fire the gun at John, or would she turn it on
herself?  What would happen if she fired the gun at the floor?  How could she
ever decide?"  Please, Mary, decide.  Please, author, don't tell us what
happened until Mary decides.  Sometimes, this sort of internal dialog can be
unintentionally hilarious, like the authors who are going along with the
story and suddenly say, "this is really boring.  When is this going to be
over?"  Soon, I hope.
6) Dialog:  is it good?  A good ear for dialog is something which is
difficult to learn.  It's easy to spot when a writer is good at dialog.
Conversations should be realistic and serve to advance the plot.  Good dialog
is not *realistic* dialog, it is dialog which advances the story, shows
character and echoes in the reader's mind.
  a) "Maid and Butler dialog" is dialog where two characters tell each other
things they already know.  It is often used to attempt to tell backstory or
to explain concepts the author thinks the reader won't understand.  In SF, we
know this as the "infodump."
  b) Flowery dialog:  sometimes found in Romance writing, Historical writing
or Fantasy writing, these are characters who speak language which never
issued from a human mouth.  High language can be appropriate in all of those
genres, but dialog like this:
   "Margaret, your lips are as sweet as the nectar from a honeyed buttercup,"
Lord Brockston Bragg ejaculated.
  "Oh, Brockston, I can feel your . . . it's . . . it's pulsating,
Brockston," Margaret exhaled.
   . . . is never appropriate.
  c) Bad tags.  "Said" is fine, as well as the occasional whisper or shout,
indicating volume (but even that's not necessary).  Bad tags include
"exhaled," "ejaculated," "shrieked," "sputtered," "muttered," "murmured," and
all other verbs attributed to a line of dialog instead of appropriate action,
description and good dialog which speaks for itself.
   Marianne cupped her hand by my ear.  "He's going to try it now.  Just
watch," she said. Whispering is pretty much understood.
  Bob sighed and opened his mouth, then sighed again.  "Can't," he said at
last.  "Can't do it."  (Beats "stuttered," or "sputtered," followed by "Bob
stuttered.  He had stuttered since he was seven and the Burnsey boys had
whipped him behind Old Man Gruenpfluegel's barn.")
7) Originality and creativity.  The most important part!  We should be
encouraging people to use their imaginations and to think beyond the first
ideas which pop into their heads.  Cliched plots and characters and
situations, like "Worldmaster Gray" and "the spacefaring couple who 
crashes on a planet and turns out to be . . . Adam and Eve!" fall into this
area.  Originality in character, plot and setting is very important and goes
a long way toward contributing to the quality of any kind of fiction writing.