James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Training Critique Partners

I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).

But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:

First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.

Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?

Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?

Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?

Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?

What did you think about the characters?

Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.

Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.

You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.

The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.

Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?

I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

A New Horror Story Anthology!

A cool thing about writing is that I get to check off boxes for the stories I’ve always wanted to write (and I can write variations too–checking off the box doesn’t mean I’m done!).

My story in Alternative Deathiness is a haunted house story, but it’s also about the impulse to scare, the trail of trauma an effective horror writer leaves behind, and how the wheel goes round and round.

Alternative Deathiness: Publication Announcement

I have a story in this one entitled “The Thing Underneath.” The first editor to read it said, “It’s slam-dunk Stoker material.”

The publisher says, As the cover to Alternative Deathiness suggests, life is but a dance with death. A topic all of us are familiar with and too often want to avoid. This is not a volume to avoid. Alternative Deathiness is a fantastic selection of short stories and poetry that includes veteran writers such as best selling author Alicia Hilton, James Van Pelt, Larry Hodges and more, as well as up and coming voices such as Jim Wright and K.G. Anderson.

Paperback ($13.13 USD)

Asimov’s and Analog Readers’ Award Ballots for 2021

Analog Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction magazines do an annual readers’ choice awards. The ballots for stories appearing in 2021 from both are now available.

Science fiction and fantasy have a long and rich history of being responsive to fans, and, of course, the fans have been loud and enthusiastic. Taking part in voting for the awards is one way for you as a reader to be a part of the conversation.

Fortunately for me I had stories in both magazines last year: “The Bahnhoff Drive-in” appeared in Asimov’s and “I Have Loved the Stars too Fondly” in Analog. I’m very proud of those pieces.

You don’t have to be a subscriber to vote (although, why aren’t you?).

Analog Readers Award

Asimov’s Readers Award

Story Sale: Science Fiction Analog

Trevor Quachri, the editor at Analog sent me an acceptance for “Party On” this morning. It’s rare for me to sell two stories in less than a week, although once I received three acceptances on the same day in the mail. This is when correspondence with magazines was done on paper. That was an awesome day!

Someone asked me if selling a story every gets old. Nope.

Story Sale: Daily Science Fiction

Daily Science Fiction sent an acceptance for my latest to them today. I want to thank my technical advisors, Dylan Van Pelt, Samuel Van Pelt and Teague Van Pelt, who know a lot more about computer gaming than I do. “NPC” will appear sometime in the future. This will be my 17th appearance in DSF and 6th story sale this year.

Buy Yourself a Birthday Present for an Author!

It’s my birthday tomorrow.

If you want to get yourself a present to celebrate it, order your signed, numbered, limited release, hardbound copy of THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT. There aren’t many copies left (remember the “limited release” part?).I really think buying author’s books for yourself or others on the author’s birthday should be a thing.

Hallmark should get involved.

Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop

I applied for this year’s version of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

Here are the answers to their questions in my application:

I have been appearing in many of the major (and minor) science fiction magazines since the early 90s. I am a frequent contributor in Analog and Asimov’s. My short stories have been reprinted in six collections from Fairwood Press, including a limited edition of THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT, which was released in November of last year. Along the way I have been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, a Nebula finalist, a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a frequent finalist in both the Analog and Asimov’s annual readers’ choice awards. My first collection was included as a “Best Book for Young Adults” by the American Library Association, and I won a Colorado Book Award for my collection, THE RADIO MAGICIAN AND OTHER STORIES. My entire bibliography, including two novels and a smattering of journalism and poetry is viewable at https://jamesvanpelt.com/?page_id=21

I am a long-time member of SFWA. I also belong to the Colorado Authors League and the Western Colorado Writers’ Forum. I recently retired from teaching high school and college English, where I was a member of NEA and the National Council of Teachers of English.

My dad was an aeronautical engineer for Martin Marietta in Denver while I was growing up. Copies of SKY AND TELESCOPE were on every flat surface in the house. His interest in astronomy was so profound that he ground his own mirror for a telescope that he mounted permanently in our backyard. Through that he showed me Saturn’s rings and Venus’s moon-like phases, and Jupiter’s moons. He invited local elementary school classes to our house for hot chocolate and an evening of stargazing. He also loved science fiction, and his interests started me on a path to becoming a science fiction writer. Some of my writing requires a knowledge of astronomy, but my background is spotty and over-dependent on Google. Relying on a Sky Guide app on my phone is unsatisfying (although fun when I’m hanging out in my yard at night). I believe that a deeper dive into studying astronomy will not only improve the accuracy of what I write but also provide me with story ideas I couldn’t come up with otherwise.

I’m a frequent workshop leader for fledgling writers and young writer’s groups. One of my recurring themes is the importance of research, real-world information. Not having spent more time myself in a dedicated astronomy environment seems a sad hole in this science fiction writer’s resume. I would love to address that by attending Launch Pad. Like Whitman I have “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,” but I think I can’t just do that. I too need to spend time with “the learn’d astronomer.”

Launch Pad – Christian Ready

The Best of James Van Pelt on Goodreads and Elsewhere

Last year I posted about progress toward the release of The Best of James Van Pelt, but I haven’t said anything else about it here since! Sheesh.

Fairwood Press released the book in November last year. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying, among other things, “Van Pelt’s superior combination of imaginative concepts with recognizable human emotions makes him a talent deserving of a wide readership.”

More reviews came out, including at Blackgate, Analog Science Fiction, and other venues.

I talked about the book at Mary Robinette Kowal’s “My Favorite Bit,” and John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea.”

This is a limited edition (200 copies), hardbound, signed and numbered collection with a wrap-around cover featuring gorgeous art by the Slovokian artist, Gabriel Gajdos. At almost 700 pages, it contains 62 stories published in numerous magazines and anthologies over the last thirty years, including a Nebula finalist, Pushcart prize nominated pieces, and Analog and Asimov’s reader award top-three stories. Part of the fun has been signing copies in my living room to be shipped to Fairwood Press for distribution.

The majority of the books have sold (but there are still a few left–any that are left we’ll take to World Fantasy in Montreal in the fall–you can still get a copy!).

At any rate, what provoked this post was realizing my Goodreads friends can see the book exists at the Goodreads site but the purchase buttons take you to Amazon and other of the bigger online booksellers. Because it is a signed and numbered book, it isn’t available through them (unlike the rest of my titles). You can only get it through Fairwood Press.

Fairwood is an awesome small press publisher who I’ve been with for all my books. The other books are available at Amazon, but not this collection. For those of you used to just pressing the “Buy now” button at Amazon, which I do often, you’ll have to visit Fairwood instead. I promise that it’s worth the trouble. Fairwood loves short story authors. If you are looking for collections, they are one of the best places to visit for contemporary authors. I particularly like Daryl Gregory’s Unpossible, Carrie Vaughn’s Amaryllis, Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please, and Brenda Cooper’s Cracking the Sky.

So, Goodreads friends and others, you can find The Best of James Van Pelt at Fairwood Press, and only there.

By the way, when you buy directly from Fairwood, all the money goes to Fairwood and the author. There’s no middleman cut to another distributor (hint, hint).

Analog Reader Awards

Science Fiction Analog has released the list of finalists for the Anlab, the annual readers’ award for best stories from the previous year. My novelette,

Analog Science Fiction and Fact September/October 2020 by Trevor Quachri

“Minerva Girls,” made the list, along with luminaries: Tom Jolly, Harry Turtledove, Sarina Dorie, and Robert R. Chase.

This is the 17th story of mine to make the readers’ award finalist lists between Analog and Asimov’s. In 2017 my stories took both second and third place at Analog.

You can read all the finalist stories for free by following the link to the announcement from Analog.

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