About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

Writing FAQ: Is my short story really a novel idea?

Does it make sense to keep working on short fiction, with the idea of developing my writing skills before moving on to a novel? How do you know when one of your own ideas will be a short story or a novel??

These are two great and related questions that I get a lot, and I have a lecture-length answer to should I work on short fiction before tackling novels? at Clarkesworld, home of several of my writing craft essays as well as a novelette called “The Immolation of Kev Magee.”

What about the second question, though–what do you do if you’ve started writing a story, and now you think it might actually be a novel?

This is an issue that comes up a lot when you’re workshopping. What happens in those cases is that your readers notice that you have a lot going on in the story you’ve submitted. Like, a lot: lots of characters, lots of complexity within the world you’ve built, maybe even multiple story threads. You’ve alluded to a dozen or more incredibly interesting things and none of them feels fully realized, and several readers are calling for you to expand each and every one of those elements. But you’re already pushing 7,500 words!

Sometimes more is more. It may be that you do indeed have a novel on your hands.

The opposite can also happen: your internal editor or actual readers can come back to your book chapters or novella with a million suggestions for cutting and condensing material that feels unneeded or, sometimes, duplicated. In such cases, you may have a lot of words covering not much content. A more abbreviated and effective form of the story might be what’s called for.

It might be easy to see both types of analysis as sheerly quantitative. One is saying you have too much stuff to fit into a short story, right? The other is suggesting you have too little matter to justify a work’s present length. It’s easy to feel like this is about word counts, and important to notice that it’s not. Whether a story is enough at a certain length is really about its heft, a sort of of intuitively-felt ratio of ideas and emotional beats to words. It’s about how much we, as readers, are digesting in relation to the length of what we’re reading.

Yes, digesting! It can be fun (and sometimes useful) to think of the story as something you’re cooking up for readers. Is it a snack? A light soup with a cookie on the side? Or is it a banquet?

Whether you’re taking this feedback about a story’s relative bigness and evaluating it after the fact, or you’re working with an unfinished idea and trying to rate whether it’s a novel or story idea, there’s no easy binary Long/Short answer or rubric you can fall back on. Complex stories can be cut back, after all. Apparently slender ideas can be nourished and expanded.

However, one thing you can try, that might make a good starting point, is to try to summarize the story you’re telling. Can you get it down to one or two sentences that really encapsulate what you’ve got on the page? If no matter what you do you can’t sum up the story without stretching into paragraphs, or even a page, you are probably heading into novel territory.

The innate sense of whether something is a novel or story idea gets sharper as you continue to write, and gain experience as both a reader and an editor. But until that instinct develops, asking yourself these kinds of questions, like What kind of food is it? or Can I summarize it in a line or two? or Can I cut it down to three characters without breaking it? might be the best way to evaluate what you’re working on.

There are few rules in writing, but in general good, self-contained short stories tend to have one storyline, one protagonist, an easily understood setting, one theme and around a handful of characters. Novels, simply, have more.

So if you’re 6000 words into something and you find yourself introducing your eighth important character on your third planet, or developing a second whole story arc, let yourself ask if you actually a novella or a book on your hands.

If that’s the case have a pause, take a breath, and then prepare to ask yourself one last thing: are you eager and excited about diving in?

Advice for new writers at this site is provided for free and without ads. If you use and appreciate the essays, you can support me in various ways, including buying me a coffee (once or monthly!), or buying my books or stories.

Writing FAQ: Should I revise my story to make it more marketable?

Head and shoulders shot of Alyx Dellamonica peering over their glasses.

How much should I be willing to change a work–say a gory horror story or something with explicit sex–to make it eligible to sell to a magazine that won’t take it in its current form?

I get this question quite often, and what caught my attention this time was the emotional framing captured in the phrase How much should we be willing

It’s a little meta, I know, to pick apart the very words of a simple question. This writer wasn’t really asking me to set levels for their feelings about revision, of course. But writing and editing are professions where close reading is a must and everything you say has impact, so for a second I’m going to take this literally. This question, as phrased, is set up in a way that invites us to judge the writer’s emotions, isn’t it? It’s not that different from asking How much should I want to get married?

This can remind us, though, that the idea of revision is emotionally charged. Changing a work of fiction isn’t like tightening the bolts on your kitchen taps or defragging a hard drive.

So let’s start with this: how you feel about revision (or marriage) isn’t really up for discussion: if you’re in hate with any given editorial suggestion, that’s allowed and valid and perfectly all right. It’s your story, always. You never have to do anything to it unless you want to. On the other hand, if you’re open or even excited about the idea of making possibly-radical changes, whether it’s for artistic reasons or commercial ones or maybe a little of both… that too is just your emotional response.

Basically, don’t let other humans try to tell you how to feel.

All right, but that’s obviously taking us away from the intent of the question… or is it? If you truly have a story that’s on the far end of salable because of its content or extreme sensibility, isn’t that a question of artistic impulse in question with the crass needs of the market? Gore’s a great example to use here. A lot of people are horrified and even triggered by graphic violence. Readers may actively seek to avoid such content and many fiction markets don’t accept stories that push into that sensibility…

… Okay. But horrified. That’s a feeling, isn’t it? And artistic impulse… that’s a value judgment we often attach to feelings that reinforce our sense of ourselves as artists. When we talk about the crass commerciality of wanting to sell stories for money, we’re judging too. We all know there’s a big tendency in our culture to imply that artists should feel bad if they want to make a living. People can find it easy to assume that someone who courts the markets somehow isn’t really a writer, or not really a good writer, and they should definitely feel bad about themselves.

In putting those imaginary judgmental voices aside, ask yourself: what matters to you most? The story as it is, as an expression of your original vision? Or the chances of a sale? Either answer is valid and can determine your choices.

Does this mean you should never examine or question those feelings or impulses? No. It is always worthwhile as a writer to explore the feelings of reluctance that arise when a difficult editorial suggestion is on the table. Sometimes we don’t want to trammel the purity of our vision, but other times the reluctance comes from other places. Places like: I am so ready to be done with this story and to move on to the next thing. Or: I don’t know how to do what’s being asked of me in a way that makes the story as good or better.

No writer, writing instructor or editor should ever argue that you should sell out your true artistic impulses by throwing your story under the bus. If you’ve got a great tragic ending and someone offers you big bucks to make it happy–we should all face such dilemmas!–and it would truly feel like a betrayal of the work, then you might feel you’ve diminished yourself and the piece by doing the changes and taking the cash.

But I want to emphasize that editors and readers do not set out to deliberately ruin stories. Editorial suggestions, even commercially motivated ones, are often good suggestions. So do check in with yourself, now and then. Are you leading with No out of habit, without even considering or trying to make the change? Sometimes this is the right instinct, but at other times it can potentially be a reflex that causes you to discard worthwhile artistic possibilities.

As for how to make revisions once you’ve decided on possible changes to a story, that’s a topic for another essay. Or, really, several other essays.

Advice for new writers at this site is provided for free and without ads. If you use and appreciate the essays, you can support me in various ways, including buying me a coffee (once or monthly!), or buying my books or stories.

Dressed as People: A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction

Today I get to share something that has given me immense joy this spring: I have become, almost by accident, a playwright!

How did it happen? The short version of the story is this: some months ago award-winning actor Margo MacDonald asked me, Kelly Robson and Amal El-Mohtar to each write her a monologue for the upcoming Ottawa Fringe. We had a general theme—disappearances, lost time, uncanny abductions. Together, we also came up with a phrase, Dressed As People, that each of us would feature somewhere within our speech.

Without consulting each other, the three of us got to writing. Each determined, I know, to wow the others, and give Margo great material to work with, while taking the concept as far as we could. None of us knew what the other was working on until the first read-through. And…

Oh, you all! Even in that rough cut first stage table read, Margo was incandescent. As she’s worked with the pieces, and we’ve worked with her and director Mary Ellis, it’s only gotten better.

I sometimes use the phrase “I grew up in a theater” as shorthand for a certain chunk of my early childhood experience. My parents were deeply involved in an amateur Northern Alberta theater company, and from the time I was three I was backstage, running errands and being admonished to get out from underfoot. Yes, this does mean I was raised by boho hippies who couldn’t afford childcare. Weren’t we all? Soon I was getting pressed into service as a prompter when nobody else was around or willing to follow a script during rehearsals. I probably hung my first lighting instrument when I was ten. (I shouldn’t have! Fresnels are damned heavy!)

I wrote some plays when I was working on my undergraduate degree in theater, many years ago, but I already knew I wanted to write science fiction novels. I didn’t regret setting aside stage work for prose, and I have written many fun things set among theater companies in the years since. But in 2020, this let me suddenly break from the Toronto pandemic and lockdown routine—with all its stresses and anxiety-laced moments of boredom and added tasks and responsibilities and woes… well, you know, of course you do. It let me stop doing all that and write to a specific challenge—this is the thing that makes me love theme anthology invites—and to work both with Kelly and with so many other artists whom I respect and admire and love. So, really, this has, from start to middle, been a dream come true.

In addition to all the other things about this experience, Dressed as People has thus been a huge gift to me, unlooked for, but much needed and so deeply appreciated that just typing these words makes me tear up. It has been a chance to take a treasured sliver of my childhood and spin a little macabre gold from it, and to be part of a theater gang again, and to make stage stuff with my wonderful wife. It has been everything during this long spring siege.

Artfully blurred photograph in cool blue tones depicting the reflection of a young woman in a window pane, her face partially obscured by the window frame. Two dried out leaves cling to a thin branch in the upper-left corner; the words "dressed as people" overlay the image in a stylized font with a ghostly blur effect hovering around the letters. The effect is eerie and evocative. Beneath that it reads "A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction" and beneath that, "with Margo MacDonald".

Naturally, the pandemic has shaped everything we did as we worked on Dressed as People. The Ottawa Fringe is virtual this year, and we rehearsed in Zoom and watched Margo and director Mary Ellis wrestle with the contradictions of trying to create a live theater experience in a recorded medium. Working as a theater company is so much about being together… and we simply weren’t. Or at least, we aren’t yet.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for the premiere of the show. Tickets are on sale now, and all of the $15 ticket price goes to the artists in the company. You can attend from anywhere in the world, at any time convenient to you, during the Ottawa Fringe, which runs from June 17-27. We will be getting up some watch parties, and if you keep an eye on our social media, or the Parry Riposte Productions site, you should be able to find out when those are scheduled.

But what is Dressed as People, besides three monologues by award-winning writers, performed by an award-winning actor and served straight to your home in just a couple weeks? Obviously I don’t want to spoil, but first of all it’s Skinless  by Kelly Robson, a shot of ice to the veins that tells the story of a school haunted by troubled children. It’s The Shape of My Teeth  by Amal El-Mohtar, about an ancient hunting wood and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman’s most important childhood friend. My Repositioning  is a bit of a romp, with myriad pop culture influences including The Love Boat, Legend of the Blue Sea and even a slight takedown of Madmen, all set now, or ten minutes from now, in this moment when a very lucky and privileged few of us might soon expect to pick up the strands of our lives… though it’s also the story of someone whose life strands were fraying pretty badly before 2019.

All three monologues are performed by Margo MacDonald, directed by Mary Ellis, and we were lucky enough to have original music composed and performed by SIESKI. Our technical director at Parry Riposte Productions is the luminous and multi-talented Titus Androgynous , and we also have support from wonderful graphic designer K.

All our socials, for easy following:

It’s going to be really fun, and all of us in the company hope you will join in.

ACCESSIBILITY

Closed captioning and a sensory-friendly transcript of the show will be available to viewers.

Dealbreaker is out!

Those of you who know about my (formerly) sekrit cli-fi life as L.X. Beckett may already know about my optimistic solarpunk novel, Gamechanger, and the related short works, like “The Immolation of Kev Magee” which appeared in Clarkesworld, both in print and as a podcast.

But now the actual sequel to Gamechanger is out. It’s called Dealbreaker, and this is its beautiful beautiful cover:

Want an excerpt? You can read the first chapter here!

I will have other stories out in 2021, in both Asimovs and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I’ll tell you more about those soon, here and on the socials, and on my L.X. Beckett site.

Not all drafts are created equal (the sequel)

Many years ago, when I first found myself giving people grades for their fiction projects, for the first time, I realized several things that may seem self-evident to you all…

–A huge part of being a writer is learning to turn a flawed draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft into something good develops with time and experience.
–Experienced editors can tell the difference between drafts with a lot of potential and those facing massive challenges.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we tend to stop learning.

To be clear, I do not submit immaculate stories to workshop! When I am writing drafts, a high level of craft is at the bottom of my list of priorities. I’m a pantser at this stage in my life. I’m not above naming incidental characters things like CousinTwo, or even getting halfway through a paragraph and writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?”

The compulsion to get the story onto the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve had to go through it three to five times… and even then, it’s still pretty much a shambles.

So. Drafts are crap. Even more, we routinely tell people to write drafts that are crap! It’s so important to have something to revise that we urge writers to, you know, spew whatever they can onto the page in service of getting finished.

So this leads to an apparent contradiction, which is explaining to my students that I can look at their crap drafts and evaluate their commercial potential. To assert that I am qualified to say “This manuscript is this far along the road, while this one is further behind,” even though I will never see what their authors might accomplish in rewrite.

What makes the difference in such cases is the task list, the things the author needs to do to the story, and how tough those challenges might be. If the author of a given draft is writing vivid scenes that give the reader a sense of immediacy, if their characters are relatable and in conflict, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and that story has something fundamentally cool about it, they’re close. Closer, anyway, than a writer that hasn’t learned some of those basics, or whose line by line writing hasn’t yet begun to carry the reader smoothly through their story.

Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will be successful? No. Almost anyone who writes ‘how to become a published author’ essays will inevitably will tell you that success in publishing often amounts more to being persistent than to any kind of innate talent.

The same person whose 2019 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story on their very next outing! They might then whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be halfway to publishable in the same workshop might stall out, or give up before they reach their next artistic breakthrough.

As editors and agents and teachers–as professional readers–we look at the pieces submitted to us and say “Yes, there’s a terrific story in here.” Or, alternately, “This one isn’t ready yet.”

I do sometimes get feedback from students that I shouldn’t be subjectively grading their stories at all. That they should get full marks for submitting them, without any evaluation. They’ll point out that many of their other instructors don’t give them any component of a grade that measures quality or merit, that indicates how well a given piece is doing. So it’s tempting to go that route… it’d save me argument and negotiation, and intellectual energy, and all sorts of work.

I get this, I do! In fact, the lion’s share of the grade in most of my courses is awarded just for showing up–doing the assigned work, writing the critiques, following the guidelines, submitting fiction on time. I give these grades because of the aforementioned persistence factor, but also to reward professional working practices. It is by and large the people who show up and do the work, after all–the ones who seem at first glance to merely be putting out quantity–who are building an artistic practice that will probably lead to sales.

Why hand someone back a story worth 10 points, then, with a 7 on it, and a note amounting to: This is 70% of the way to being salable in a professional market; for the things that are still in its way, see my workshop critique? It feels to the recipient much as a rejection does, after all, and rejections are painful.

(Spoiler: The answer is no. I don’t strive to have people practice feeling rejected.)

Most beginning writers, especially the serious ones, want desperately to know if they’re getting closer to publication, and what’s holding them back. When I speak at conventions, you can sense a hunger for that answer in the questions that come from the audience: How close am I? Will I get there? What do I do to get published? What does it take?

Some of what it takes is accepting, in your bones, that sometimes your stories need major rewriting.

Now that I’ve been at this awhile I have seen, time and again, that when I critique a story or exercise and attach a 100% grade to it, their authors take the problems I’ve identified within that work of fiction–and the need to address those problems–far less seriously than when they get that sobering 70%. It’s getting less than a perfect mark that brings people to my door or inbox with follow-up questions about how to embark on revision.

Universities require that students be graded. I can’t not do it. And for me, making those grades meaningful means awarding them in a way that brings writers more deeply into the revision process. If that also brings them back to my door with follow-ups questions and demands for resources, so much the better.