Sunday, February 24, 2013


The term "Worldbuilding" dates at least back to the 1970s and refers to the work involved in creating a fictional world. When referring to prose ficiton, worldbuilding is all about giving fictional characters an interesting (to the reader, anyway) place to live. 

(Remember, the world has to be interesting to the reader, not necessarily to the story's characters. The purpose of writing fiction is to make readers, not characters, experience specific thoughts and feelings.)

Stories that are set in the real world require just as much worldbuilding as stories set in galaxies far, far away. The difference is, readers can generally be assumed to have a basic knowledge of the real world. 

That's not always true, though. At OTP we get a fair number of submissions from countries where life is rather different than it is in the US, or even the US and the UK and its related countries. For issue #19 we received, liked, but ultimately had to reject a story that couldn't be fully appreciated unless you knew a lot more about Serbian history than we do, and that we suspect our readers have.

A couple of times we've published stories by African authors, and we've had to ask them to be a little more explicit about what certain objects are, or whether it's going with custom or against custom for a character to do some act that, in the story, annoys neighbors. I'm sure some African readers probably wondered why the author bothered explaining something "everybody knows," but the point is, OTP is a global magazine and there's very little in this world that "everybody knows." (For one thing, all of our stories are written in English and only about 1/8 of the world's population can speak English. Reading it is a different question, and even harder to answer.) 

Even stories set in today's America and aimed at educated audiences in today's America require worldbuilding. Here's a good example from "The Zen Thing" by Emma Duffy, recently published in One Story magazine. Watch this combination of family history, characterization, mood setting, and scene setting. Anita is the story's main character and the setting is a family get-together.

[Frank] and Anita's grandmother are eighty years old. They met five years ago at Fresh Seafood, where Anita's grandmother worked as a cashier. They were both living in mobile homes at the time, but Frank's was a double-wide, and so they decided to move in there. Everyone is glad for it, especially Frank, who seems to have no family to his name whatsoever and will now, he knows, have his ass wiped by Anita's parents when the time comes. He has already asked Anita's mother, who is a nurse, to be his medical power of attorney. Everyone is pretty sure Frank is gay, and possibly black, though Anita's grandmother, having never had any experience with either, is unaware of this.

That's 100% worldbuilding. You can't understand this story until you understand the family and the world they're living in. In this case their world is one of unrealistic hopes, long-smoldering grudges, and nasty intrusions from the uglier parts of reality the characters intend to ignore for as long as possible.

Worldbuilding is much more difficult, though, when a story is not set in a world that shares most of its features with the one the audience lives in. When I was active on, I read a lot of unpublished (and unpublishable) SF/fantasy novels, or at least their opening chapters. I've seen authors desperately try to stuff six books' worth of notes about their world's history into the reader without once asking the question, "What must the reader know to fully understand my story?" The answer to that question is, "Much, much less than what you need to know to write your story."

In other words, we can read and enjoy The Hobbit without having to read The Silmarillion. (Good thing, too, if you ask me!) That's because the best writers figure out how to imply or suggest what readers need to grasp about a world without having to write "information dumps"--those heavy, leaden walls of text that previously speedy and nimble stories crash into and die from.

As an example, in the excerpt above, readers could not be expected to guess that Anita's grandmother has had no experience with gays or black people, so the story told them. Readers also couldn't be expected to guess that Frank may well be both gay and black, so the story told them. But now that you know these two things, and that Anita's grandmother and Frank have been living together for five years, what can you guess? See, that's the art of worldbuilding--giving the readers just enough pieces of the puzzle for them to assemble the rest. The finished picture in the reader's mind doesn't have to be exactly the same as the one in the writer's mind, just close enough to provide a useful framework for the rest of the story. 

Next week I'll give you a preview of a story we're publishing in Issue #19. That story does one of the best jobs of SF worldbuilding I've ever seen from an author who isn't already famous for writing great SF, and I'll go into some detail (with the author's permission) about how I think he does it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Our Reading and Rating Process

Every once in a while, we get communications from people who don't understand how we can announce the results of a short story contest just two or three days after it closes. They wonder if we're somehow reading 200+ stories in two or three days. No, we read and rate them as they come in. But that raises an important question:

If you send us a story ten days into a contest and we judge it to be the 12th best story of the 20 received up to that point, why don't we send you a rejection slip right then? Why wait until the contest is over?

We're open to changing that practice, if you can come up with a strong enough counter-argument. Here is our reasoning for the current practice.

1) We want each author to enter our contests only once. Since we read all stories blindly, however, we don't have a good way to prevent somebody from sending us a story on Day 1 of the contest, and then submitting something else on Day 75. Our nightmare scenario is dealing with a writer who would submit a different (rejectable) story every day if we rejected stories as soon as we realized they had no chance to get published. 

2) A point from Bethany: We have rejected stories that turned out to be from authors who, in different contests, took first place (with a different story of course). By rejecting an early entry right away, we're giving that entry's author a chance to submit a different story that we might like a lot more. Rejecting stories right away gives those stories' authors a big advantage over other contestants, and we think that would be unfair. 

3) I know from experience it's annoying to wait 2-3 months to find out how your story did, but a 2-3 month wait time is not that far from an industry average. So while I'm not thrilled with it, I don't feel we're treating our writers in a way that the industry would condemn.

4) What would we do with a story we receive on Day 2 of a contest, and is so good, it remains in contention all the way to the end, but on the last day we decide it can't quite crack the top ten? That author's going to wait three months for a reply no matter what.

5) Another point from Bethany: Just about every contest, at least one author withdraws his or her entry for some reason. We've had that happen just before a contest closed! In fact, twice now it's happened with stories we were strongly considering sending to the prize judges. That meant some story we were originally going to reject took the withdrawn story's place, and in at least one case, won a prize

6) Finally, every alternative we've considered sounds worse to us than the current practice. We've even considered a "halfway" notice, in which halfway through a contest, we'd tell all non-contending authors that they didn't make it. But what would we do with the contending authors, if anything? I don't want to get their hopes up because many times, a story that is in the top ten halfway through a contest doesn't make the final round. (Two-thirds of our entries tend to come in the last half of the contest.) Plus there's still the one-entry-per-author problem.

It seems like the only way to give feedback in something closer to real time would be to pick on the authors who sent the stories that did the worst. We don't want to do that. So, we file our notes and decisions away and hold them until the end.

Having said all that, if you can make an argument for faster rejections that's stronger than the argument for our current system, please do, and we'll think about changing. Over the years, we've adjusted a number of our practices because our readers and writers had better ideas than we did. We're willing to do so again.