Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

No One Left To Save by Dave Herz

I was struck this month by the goofy, gutshot way “No One Left to Save” tackles its central ethical question: what do you do with a nuclear payload when there’s nothing left to lose? While this piece manages to juggle action, genuine emotion, a philosophical problem worth considering, and a slightly tragic screwball feel, I felt the ending didn’t quite bring all those elements home. So this month, I’d like to dig into the difference between resolving the surface plot conflict and the deeper emotional or thematic conflict we’ve set up, and how to bring those closer to each other so the end of a story satisfies readers.

Well-paced, well-planned, and built around an absolutely solid plot twist, “No One Left to Save” sets up, despite its tongue-in-cheek and fairly dry sense of humour, a serious dilemma from the second scene. With the entire crew reeling from their own personal losses and taking very different sides, it’s an effective and compelling engine for story, one which keeps its stakes fresh and relevant until the last paragraphs.

The tone is also key in making “No One Left to Save” work for me: the slight absurdity of starting with Joseph’s decision-making lifehacks conveys something of the futile feeling of staring into a tragedy without making the story itself so heavy I can’t read on. Lines like “Joseph underlined everyone twice for emphasis” and the Happy Show soundtrack are legitimately funny, and work as a solid counterbalance to the grimness of the situation—and tiny, awful details like Nasrine’s burn marks, where the real emotional impact of what’s just happened above peeks through. It’s legitimately impactful to see the slightly goofy and definitely dark idea of torture through kids’ program jingle just serve to remind Joseph how much he loves—and misses—his family, and there’s real skill on display here in how those emotional moments weave together with thrillerlike action and sidelong humour, keeping the story balanced and moving without miring it in awfulness or getting so unserious that the stakes are undermined.

However, the side effect of that combination is that the emotional conflict (Joseph’s sense of responsibility versus his personal grief) and the plot-level conflict (nuke Garland or not?) aren’t always given the same depth and screen time, and that means when Joseph takes a third way and pulls something unknown to the reader out from up his sleeve, it resolves the plot conflict, but in a way that feels significantly weightless. If Joseph had a self-destruct code from High Command all this time, why bother with the general escapades of the previous scenes? Garland is saved, but Joseph’s complex feelings about duty, grief, and children terminate in an abrupt bullet and an explosion, and leaves the question of his grief and what he’s doing with it—the emotional engine of the whole story—running in thin air, unresolved.

This is where the question of emotional versus plot conflicts come into play—and where the two pull apart. Readers take a few cues from a story to figure out what the most important issue is, one of the simplest being page space spent on a question—and “No One Left to Save” spends a lot of page space on Joseph wrestling with the question of ending children’s lives explicitly because of his family, his own children. His reaction to Serena’s threat is a feeling of peace, but that’s one line of prose; there’s no explicit tip into proactively choosing to die for this—a very different headspace indeed. What I remember as the reader is the feeling that got the page weight: grief, and love, and wanting people to live—and his actions in the ending as written does not follow reasonably from that tone. That leaves an overall feeling of a mismatch in play between what the story’s telling us is the problem and the problem it solves. The solution’s reasonably clever, but what I was reading “No One Left to Save” for was its goofy side, its snarky side, its loving side—all those things that counterbalanced the grimness and made the piece so readable. In short, its heart.

What I’d suggest in addressing that is patching from either side, depending on the effect you’re looking to achieve: a grimmer story that sets up that Twilight-Zone plot twist of the self-destruct code, or the more wryly screwball story that brings humanity into a somewhat stock situation. Depending on which end the revisions come from—and which result they move towards—I’d look to bridge that gap by either adjusting page weight to emphasize the emotion that leads logically to that decision, or thinking back through the decision to see if one that flows more logically from Joseph’s headspace as described can be found. Either way, it’s substantive work, but the kind of work that’ll bring what happens—the plot!—and why it happens closer together so the story feels like a unity.

In terms of more minor suggestions: I’m not entirely sure that the opening scene works for me. It’s beautifully written in and of itself in terms of texture, sensory information, and effect, but the tone never matches the rest of the story’s claustrophobic atmosphere; that perspective is never revisited. It ends up feeling extraneous, when the information about what’s at stake—and what happened to Arkhaven—is already embedded in the second scene. As it stands, I feel like it just delays the actual start of action: Joseph’s briefing.

This is also marked as a middle draft, which means it’s probably already slated for more polish, but I’d also suggest a revision that looked at line-by-line edits: from checking on the rhythm of prose to trimming out duplicate information, and finding ways to make lines like “Nasrine smiled. ‘You’re welcome. We are old friends, after all.'” potentially less obviously designed to give information to the reader over showing how two old friends would, more naturally, talk. I think there’s a chance of trimming a few hundred words out of this piece just on small edits, tightening, and line-by-line work, and making it more accessible for magazines with wordcount caps in the process.

I think there’s great potential here for an impactful, claustrophobic, meaningful narrative that doesn’t lose its tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and humanity—with a few edits and some careful thought about what kind of action would close the question Joseph’s relationship with his family opened.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Fantasy

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Code of Dragons And Warriors Chapter One by Kit Davis

I am a complete sucker for dragon fantasies. I love them all—film, television, and of course, prose fiction (and poems, too). I Impressed as a teen on McCaffrey’s bonded human-dragon pairs, and I adore the dragons of Le Guin’s Earthsea.

The Author’s Note of this chapter asks us to be honest if we feel we’ve seen it all before. My honest response is, It doesn’t matter. If the author does it right, even the oldest trope can be new again—and the reader will love it both because it is a beloved trope, and because it’s well done.

There’s lots of potential here. The dragon’s viewpoint is a lovely touch, and the name Mezentius has a classic fantasy resonance. The setting is beautiful, too, and I very much like the sense of the numbers and varieties of dragons. I’m a big fan of Novik’s Temeraire books, and appreciate the echoes here.

In revision, I would suggest some rethinking and restructuring of the chapter. This draft focuses on Mezentius as he contemplates the gathering of dragons and fills in the backstory. He sits on his peak and reflects on the state of the world and the dragons’ role in it, until the messenger he’s sent out comes to report on the latest developments. Then the meeting begins, and the dragons discuss the situation and decide what to do about it.

I call this narrative technique “offstaging.” Characters think or talk about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening in the present, and discuss what to do in the future. It’s a kind of filter; it separates the reader from the action. The thing the reader has come for, the story itself, happens offstage.

There is a lot of backstory to present here, and a complex political and cultural and social setting which needs to be established as the novel begins. The reader has numerous questions, and the writer’s challenge is to answer them in ways that both get the story started and leave enough mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. What do we need to know and when do we need to know it? How much is enough for clarity, and how much is too much?

The same applies to events that happen before the novel opens. The usual rule of thumb is to begin as close to the end as we can, and fill in the rest through exposition and flashbacks. But again, how exactly do we do this while also keeping the plot moving and the reader engaged?

Mezentius’ viewpoint, here, serves as a device for conveying information. We get the story so far and the setting and background as he sees it. What we’re getting less of is actual, immediate, live and active story. Even the council, while it shows us some of the interactions among the different factions dragons, is primarily characters talking about events rather than living them.

While I like the framing device of Mezentius on the peak—it’s visually beautiful and offers a nice bit of insight into the world and the dragons—as a reader I would like to see more of what he’s pondering and everyone is talking about. Rather than being told what’s happening elsewhere, could we see some of it? A scene or two that lets us be right there, living it with the characters? Can we live through Canace’s death in a flashback as Mezentius experiences it, as a dramatized scene? If Renke’s own viewpoint adds too many to the novel as a whole, might he relate one significant example of everything he’s seen, as a scene with a beginning and a middle and an end, summing up all the rest in a short but powerful story-within-a-story? Can he tell us what happened in one place, what he did and how he felt and what other people did and felt around him?

Much of what the council plans to do might turn into scenes later in the novel. Let us know that they discussed the state of the world and made plans that will be executed as time goes on, but leave those to be revealed as they become relevant. What matters here is that they met, and we get to see why and get some sense both emotionally and factually of what they’re reacting to. Let us see and feel and experience the various chunks of exposition when we absolutely need to know them, when they can be a part of the story as it happens. Here, just give us a detail or two that tells us what’s most important, which, as I read it, is Canace’s death and the fact that some dragons are blaming it on humans.

If the chapter focuses on one major plot point, the reader has a clear sense of what the novel is about. Likewise, if the story is told in direct scenes rather than in exposition and conversation, it’s that much stronger and more memorable. The reader gets to be there with the characters, experiencing the story as it happens—whether in the story-present or as flashbacks from the past.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Double War by Hunter Ross

There are some great things going on in this submission. The setup is classic space opera, with political intrigue mixed up with family drama, and the events of the chapter are nice and dramatic.

In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about the art (and craft) of conveying emotion. This is one of the key elements of characterization. It’s also highly relevant to the development of tension and suspense.

Raquel’s situation is fundamentally tense, from her ethnic identity through her conflicts in the workplace to the overt drama of the crash. There’s quite a bit of suspense: when we meet her, she’s late to work, and she’s further delayed by the encounter with the old woman, which provides insight into Raquel’s personal history as well as the broader political landscape—and offers us a Chekovian gun-on-the-mantlepiece in the form of the contraband sheath. Then the events of the crash unfold, beginning with the truncated distress call.

This is all excellent drama, and sets up a whole range of plot-material for the rest of the novel. In this draft however, the prose hasn’t quite caught up. It serves as a kind of scaffolding, framing the scenes and setting the characters in place, with blocks of exposition and backstory.

There are some indications of what the story can be with further revision. The crash has flashes of strong drama, and the characters’ distress comes through, as does a degree of the tension between Raquel and her brother. The story moves. It pulls the reader forward from page to page and into the next chapter.

To help deepen the drama and heighten the tension, I would suggest paring the exposition down as ruthlessly as possible. Rather than listing the contents of the medical kit, for example, focus on what’s directly relevant at that moment. The fact of the kit’s existence implies the rest; what the reader needs to know, right there and then, is what Raquel pulls out of it to do what she can for the Minister. It’s all she can find, it’s the best she can manage. There’s the tension, and the suspense is the worry that it might not be enough to save the Minister’s life.

Look out, too, for the order in which details appear. Think about what a character will logically see and when. Watch for slippage: the old woman describes herself as a Tawa early on in her encounter with Raquel, but Raquel seems to take this in as new information considerably later on. One simple way to heighten the drama here would be to delete the earlier reference and to depict the woman as being of ambiguous origin, that the Raquel doesn’t recognize what she is immediately. Then when she reveals herself, it’s more of a shock to Raquel, and the reader feels it along with her.

On a larger scale, I would suggest ongoing rounds of what I call “Thinking Things Through.” The explosion on the ship is a good example. Characters are talking and acting through and after it, but the physical consequences of the explosion are very lightly sketched. Think in detail about what happens to an aircraft when part of it blows off. Make sure the characters are feeling it—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. The sheer terror and the deadly urgency of trying not to get sucked out into the void.

Even small details: How hard will it be to open the hatch to the cockpit with the cabin depressurized? How many passengers besides the Captain will have been ejected, and who may barely be able to hang on? Once the survivors are in the cockpit/bridge, what does it take to get the hatch secured? These details don’t need to be numerous—too many will slow down the action—but a handful, carefully chosen, will draw a clear and powerful picture of what has happened.

The emotional affect of the chapter in general is a quick sketch now, building the world and blocking out the characters. In the next phase, think about coloring in layers of feeling. Let the characters express how they feel. When they act, let those actions convey emotion, suggest urgency, add complications. Find different ways to express “frequent-flier” words and concepts: lookeyestareglance, for example. Watch for emotionally distant words and constructions: clauses strung together with and (which flatten tension and weaken the impact of each separate clause), passive-negatives (she did not get a chance to respond), passive verbs, reactions that step away from expressing feelings (such as considered).

Make sure characters’ responses are appropriate to the scene and the characters. When Raquel and Diego have their private conversation, does her grin and Diego’s smile fit the context? Is it too lighthearted for the situation? Is there a way to make it fit—a further layering of emotion, a detail that shows the reader why they might respond this way in this circumstance?

And finally, in constructing each scene, make sure the pacing fits the emotional intensity of the scene. Raquel is late for work in the opening scene, but her encounter with the old woman seems leisurely, without a strong sense of urgency. Paring down the exposition will help, but also think about shortening the scene itself. Keep in mind that Raquel is in a hurry, she doesn’t have time for this, she’s trying to get away but the old woman won’t let her go. Then when she sees the sheath, she’s caught in spite of herself. She has to find out where it came from. But she shouldn’t forget she’s late and will have to pay for it when she finally gets to work.

It’s all about keeping it brief, keeping the focus, and choosing the right words—while also being constantly aware of the the full ramifications of each action and reaction. Thinking it through, and saying it in just the right way.

Best of luck with the novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Scared of Girls by Liz Tuckwell

I’m drawn in by the unusual situation revealed in the opening scene, with the six teen girls sitting on Martin’s garden wall.  Martin’s fear of young girls is also interesting.  These two elements set up compelling questions–What do the girls want?  What is the cause of Martin’s fear?–that drive me to keep reading until the end, when the answers are revealed.  That works very nicely.

Some other elements of the story could be strengthened.

The story lacks a strong causal chain.  A causal chain establishes the connections between events–one thing causes the next, which causes the next, and so on.  A causal chain is important because it answers the “why” questions that give a story meaning.  It also gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own rather than being manipulated by the author, which is critical if readers are to “believe” the story.  And it makes readers more involved in a story, because if one thing is causing the next, readers can try to guess what will happen and feel suspense or excitement over that.

“Scared of Girls” has few causal connections, which makes it hard for us to feel much meaning or impact.  The initial situation doesn’t seem connected to previous causal events.  I don’t know why the girls started sitting on his wall.  I don’t know why teen girls frighten Martin.  Once the story starts moving forward, each scene doesn’t have an effect on the next scene.  The first scene only establishes the status quo and doesn’t have any effect on later scenes.  The second scene is a dream, and a recurring one at that, so it has no impact on future scenes (this is the reason it’s usually not a good idea to have dreams in stories; they seldom have an effect on the rest of the story and are usually a vehicle for revealing information or foreshadowing events, which is the case here).  The third scene involves Martin talking to his neighbors about the girls.  This conversation influences Martin to call the police, which is a causal connection, though it seems strange that Martin never considered this himself.  Martin’s call to the police, though, has no effect on the rest of the story.  It’s a dead end.  The next scene shows the girls pressing up against the window, something they’ve never done before.  What caused them to do this?  I don’t know.  So a major escalation in the situation has occurred with no cause.  This ought to cause Martin to call the police again, because the policeman implied they would take action if the girls trespassed.  But that never happens.  Instead, the girls pressing at the window causes Martin to open the door to tell them to go away.  So there is a causal connection between the girls pressing at the window and Martin opening the door.  But then he closes the door and somehow the door opens and the girls enter.  I don’t know why the door opens.  If the girls have had the power to open it all along, why didn’t they do this when they first learned about Martin rather than spending days sitting on his wall?  This is another escalation without a cause.  Then Martin transforms into a unicorn.  Why does that happen now, when it seemingly has never happened before?  If it’s the nearness of the girls, then I think he was nearer to them when they were pressed against the window.  Are the girls making him transform?  Is he somehow now allowing his own true nature to emerge?  Whatever causes this could make the story more interesting and meaningful.  Right now, it’s just a blank.  Why do the girls kill Martin?  While the twist of Martin’s transformation is surprising, which is fun, I don’t feel much sympathy for Martin, since he never had a chance, or much horror over the girls.  I enjoy the ending as a surprising twist, but that’s about it.  I’d like more.  I’d like some significance or meaning to Martin’s death and to the girls’ nature.  Creating a stronger causal chain would help that happen.

I hope that didn’t seem too harsh.  I just wanted to explain it step by step.  This is a fairly common writing problem, and it can be easy to fix and add a lot of excitement to a story.  There are many possible solutions; here’s one possibility.  Let’s start by looking at a key issue.  Why is Martin afraid of teen girls?  I imagine he gets some feeling when he looks at them or thinks about them.  The story uses bird metaphors to convey Martin’s sense that these girls are a threat.  Those metaphors show me that he fears them.  But it doesn’t show me why he fears them or why he thinks he fears them.  For me, when you talk about him staying inside except during school hours, I immediately start to wonder if he’s a pedophile.  So perhaps Martin fears that he is a pedophile because teen girls give him this strange feeling in his body.  That would explain why he doesn’t want to go outside to talk to them.

Then we could look at the question of why the girls started sitting on his wall.  Perhaps a few days ago Martin was late getting home from somewhere, and when he passed by the school, it had already let out.  One girl might have followed him home and sat on the wall.  Then others may have joined over the intervening days.  Why was he late getting home from somewhere?  Perhaps he was at a restaurant meeting a computer date, part of his attempt to find an adult girlfriend who might “cure” him of his feelings about teen girls.  This would show him struggling to solve what he thinks is his problem.  Perhaps he felt no attraction to the date, the date left, and he sat in the restaurant, depressed, until he realized the late hour.

As the number of girls increases, he struggles to figure out how to get rid of them.  He considers calling the police but decides against that because of his mother’s advice (and because he fears the police will sense he’s a pedophile).  That could explain why he goes to his neighbors.  Right now, I don’t know the purpose of Martin’s visit to his neighbors.  He seems to have no clear goal.  If he has a goal to get them upset about the girls and get them to take action, then he might lie and say he saw them going into the neighbors’ garden, looking in their windows, etc., and he might try to get them to drive the girls off or call the police.  This could work even better if he snuck into their garden earlier and ripped up some flowers or broke a window so he could blame it on the girls.  The neighbors, though, have a video doorbell and check the records when Martin is there.  They discover Martin is guilty and call the police on Martin.  This is an example of how escalation can be connected to the causal chain.  In this scene, as Martin goes to the neighbors’ house, readers expect the outcome will be either a “yes” or “no.”  Either the neighbors will say “yes” and agree to help, or the neighbors will say “no.”  Right now, they say no, which means Martin is back where he started and this scene has changed nothing.  Instead, you usually want a “yes, but” or a “no, moreover.”  In a “yes, but,” the protagonist gets what he wants but there are strings attached or some other unexpected development that makes the situation worse.  For example, “yes, Martin, we’ll talk to the girls and tell them to leave, but you have to do that with us.”  Or, “no, Martin, we won’t talk to the girls; moreover, we’re going to turn you in to the police for vandalism.”  The situation escalates and there will be a strong causal connection between this scene and the next.

This type of solution would also strengthen a couple other areas of the story.  Right now, Martin doesn’t seem to be trying strongly enough to solve his problem.  And he doesn’t seem to have a chance of success, so there’s not a lot of suspense over who will triumph.  If he tried harder and had some bit of success along the way, readers would feel more uncertain about the outcome and would feel worse when Martin fails.

I won’t go through the rest of the causal chain, except for Martin’s transformation.  I think the story could have much more emotional impact if we knew the cause of that.  Continuing my example, Martin might panic when he comes face to face with one of the girls in his kitchen.  The feeling of attraction might become overwhelming.  He might think this is why his mother told him to keep to himself; she knew he was sick.  His life has been miserable trying to fight his nature.  He’s tried and tried to avoid the girls and been unable to.  If his fate is to be a pedophile, then maybe he just needs to accept that he’s a horrible person and hope someone stops him soon.  So he decides to give in to it.  In this example, then, Martin causes the transformation, and it’s the culmination of (the effect of) all his failed attempts to get rid of the girls.

If we’ve seen Martin trying everything possible to avoid this situation, we might feel some compassion for him here, even as we’re upset at his decision.  And then, to Martin’s and our surprise, giving in to this attraction doesn’t mean approaching the girl for sex; it means turning into a unicorn.  Once Martin gets past the shock, he could feel huge relief that he’s not a pedophile.  That he has a pure love for these girls and doesn’t have to be afraid of himself anymore and doesn’t have to be alone.  Then they can kill him.

I hope this shows how to strengthen the causal chain, incorporate escalation into the causal chain, make the protagonist try harder to achieve his goals, and have a chance of success.  When you do those things, readers will believe more in the story, will be more involved in events, and will experience more emotion and draw more meaning from your story.

I really enjoyed the unusual situation and the unusual outcome.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

One of the best writing challenges of all is to take a tried and true genre trope, and make it your own. Your challenge is to take the line– “Such a tiny dragon was easy to overlook.” –and write a story.

But first, rethink the concept and the trope of “dragons.” What would a dragon look like on a newly discovered world? Can you write a horror story starring a dragon no one would expect, or design a machine to fill the ecological niche a dragon might occupy?

Let your imagination wander, but most of all, have fun.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wrote to say: “Flame Tree Press purchased my story “Truth Fly, Don’t Bother Me” for their November newsletter, themed ‘dystopia’. This story was extensively reviewed at OWW and I appreciate all the great feedback. This is my third pro sale this year, and OWW was instrumental in all of those sales.”

Major congratulations, Peter!

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Airbody by Sameem Siddiqui

“Airbody” caught my eye this month with its narrative voice—warm, cynical, self-reflective, and sweet—its careful attention to the impact, good and bad, of its science-fictional element on everyday lives, and the simple, humane lines of the story it’s telling. I love stories that take a less-worn approach to who would use science fiction technologies, why, and how, and take questions of a technology’s implications further. I do think, though, there’s room here to tighten, polish, and focus—it is an early draft! So this month, I’d like to discuss how to figure out what advances the narrative and what unfocuses or slows it in the kinds of stories that are about the power of smaller moments.

This story is deeply rooted in recognizing humanity, and it starts early and deploys that growth carefully. The line of travel from the first paragraph’s archetype-driven “Amazing how all Desi aunties are basically the same”—and a list of personalities that are mostly about really about the children, really about Arsalan—to a complex, whole person saying, “When you could live foolishly thinking you’d turn out to be something other than what you became in the end” is well laid out, and bolstered by subthemes and small details: the whole question of food and authenticity and memory, what the hints Arsalan drops about his habitual self-neglect, his childhood, and the roots of his habit of putting everyone else first say about care, caring for oneself, and being cared for.

There are deep waters being explored in “Airbody”, and what’s exciting is how well they all fit together—and fit the choice of science fictional element. The journey of “Airbody”—which is really thematically appropriate for a story about borrowing and commodifying bodies—is a journey from seeing people as things, people as how they’re useful to someone else into seeing people-as-people: unique, complicated, important. What Arsalan needed from others, and needs now; what Meena needed, and what Haniya needs.

The science-fictional metaphor being rolled out here absolutely fits, and “Airbody” is smart to not clutter that arc with digressions about the technology itself. It’s leaving room for the most powerful element of the story to shine, and that’s a real strength even though this is an early draft.

The voice is engaging from the first sentence, but it’s tangible how it softens near the end, as Arsalan recognizes his hunger and Meena’s as something the same, and the Urdu dialogue’s nested in such a way that what explanation is there feels organic, and a good deal of it is clear from context. Overall, this is deeply affecting, and has the potential to sharpen into a really powerful story.

The suggestions I have are mostly about pacing and focus: finding the places where the piece lags a little, or information doesn’t yet connect, and working out those rougher spots. This is something that might be a little more difficult in a story that isn’t aggressively events-driven; for those, the question “does this move the plot forward?” can get us most of the way there, but in a story that’s grounded in thematic questions, intimacy, character moments, and atmosphere, it can be trickier to step back and evaluate which of those moments are serving the overall piece better than others.

The method I would try would be to think about whether a line or moment works well by finding the centre of the story—in this case, I think, food, memory, the difference between using someone for something and loving them, sacrifice, and care—and seeing how strongly or weakly that line or event relates in any way back to the centre. Think of this as revising by Venn diagram! The stronger the tie, the more that line or scene is rounding out the whole of the story; the weaker the tie, the more it might need to be bolstered or trimmed. This is a bit like topiary, or trimming trees: the feeling of readerly focus in a short story isn’t too different from looking at a tree or shrub that’s kept in a tidy, cohesive shape—versus one that still has bits sticking out.

So specifically, I’d suggest attention on tightening up the middle of the piece. Meena and Arsalan’s banter and the whole cooking process note the passage of time and process, but they aren’t always feeding that complex nest of thematic questions, and where they aren’t touching at least one, the story feels a bit like it’s briefly spinning its wheels.

Likewise, the memories of Hafza and Karla aren’t tied as solidly as they could be into the question of Arsalan’s mother, of intimacy and what he’s after; all of them aren’t reflecting Meena and Haniya’s relationship all the way just yet. I can tell that parallel is important, but it’s not fully on the page for me yet, so the conclusion I’m supposed to draw—about what happened, or how I should feel as a reader—isn’t yet in focus for me.

I’m pretty sure once those things are snapped together, or brought out more, “Airbody” will be a really sweet, powerful piece—and I’m looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

A Child’s Crusade, Chapter 2, by Elizabeth Porco

I like the various concepts that appear and develop in this chapter. The nature and evolution of superpowers, the Zero-Crossing Arena, the family at the center of the story and the young protagonist who has to come to terms with both her cancer diagnosis and her new powers. These are all strong plot-drivers, with lots of potential for emotional arcs and conflict both physical and mental.

As I read this stage of the draft, I kept coming back to two basic elements of craft. One, the selection and development of scenes. Two, the art of transitions.

Real life has a way of just going on: the same things happen over and over, crises come and go, and there’s no distinct shape to any of it—except what our brains try to impose on it. What story does is impose order on the progression of events. It makes connections. It decides what’s important, and by extension, it minimizes or passes over everything else.

When a writer selects scenes, she’s establishing priorities in the story. She’s also practicing narrative economy. She keeps repetition to a minimum—if ideas or phrases or events repeat, they’re doing so for a reason. They’re telling the reader, Pay attention. This is important. When the same thing happens over and over, the author may refer briefly to this fact, then pick one scene that shows this thing happening, and preferably in some way that moves the story forward.

In this chapter, Alicia’s medical adventures are numerous and ongoing. Each one is a step along the way toward (everybody hopes) recovery. At the same time, she’s learning about her new powers and discovering how to control them. The hallucinations are a part of the process, as are her interactions with others: fellow patients, medical personnel, her family.

That’s all good, and it’s good story-stuff. What I think it needs at this stage is some stepping back and thinking about what the chapter wants to accomplish. Which elements are most important? Where does Alicia need to be at the beginning, and how will she have progressed (or regressed—character development can go either way) by the end of the chapter?

Once these questions are answered, I would suggest condensing the main ideas into two or three connected scenes. Alicia’s introduction to the cage, for example, then her experience inside it, and finally, the aftermath: one coherent scene that illustrates what has happened to her and how she is dealing with it. Thi s scene will lead toward the next chapter, and set up what’s going to happen there.

In the draft, a multiple things happen in the second half of the chapter. A lot goes on over an extended period. Characters both new and old and come and go.

There’s enough information here for multiple scenes and a number of chapters. Which of all these things is most important right after Alicia gets out of the cage? How do Alicia and the people around her handle it? How does it feed into the next important event in the story? What happens over and over, that can be condensed into a single reference or snippet of a scene? What contributes directly to the movement of the story, and what slows or halts that movement?

The guiding principle here is focus. Focus on what’s directly relevant to the story right here and now. What builds on what came before, and what leads clearly toward the next point in the plot.

Focus also on developing emotional arcs. Think about how various characters—and Alicia most of all—will feel about what’s happening. How do their emotions evolve? What progressions do they go through? Alicia’s father in particular will have a whole complex of feelings about Alicia’s cancer (worry, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, love for her, and much more), and once she’s undergone treatment, those feelings will intensify and evolve. Now she has the same powers he has—how does he feel about that? Is he scared? Angry? Proud? What is going on in his head as he takes care of her?

One thing that may help with developing each scene, both within the scene and in moving from one to the next, is some work on transitions. In the draft, events tend to proceed at pretty much the same emotional temperature. We get time-stamps—the next two days, next, then, two hours later, after that. Characters come and go, in so many words. Someone comes in, someone is there, someone goes out.

The cumulative effect is almost static. Scenes run from one to the next without clear demarcation. Things happen in a steady sequence, with a fairly shallow rise and fall of narrative tension.

A very simple way to demarcate scenes and changes of viewpoint is to insert a line space whenever the scene or point of view shifts. That gives the reader a visual clue: Expect a change here.

Less simple but similarly helpful is to vary the ways in which time passes and characters move here and there. Instead of saying, each time, how many days or hours have passed, think about how to show the passing. Maybe there’s a clock on the wall, or somebody mentions that it’s been X number of days since they saw Alicia, or she stops to count the days or hours while she’s waiting for the next procedure. Maybe she’s losing track, or maybe she’s anxious for a certain amount of time to have passed.

Cutting back on the number of things that happen in the chapter, and rethinking the time frame for this chapter—making it shorter and more focused, or else moving more quickly from one key event to another—will help make the progression of time and events clearer, and make it easier to decide how to move from one event to another. It’s all about clarity, and about focusing on what’s most important to the story. Once that starts happening, the story should be easier for the reader to follow, and the characters will have more room to grow and change and evolve (or devolve—as I said earlier, events and people can regress as well as progress).

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Elizabeth Tuckwell writes: “Just to say that I have a short story in the anthology, “Harvey Duckman Presents, Volume 3” being published on 31 October 2019 by Sixth Element Publishing.

The short story, “Tully and the Ghost” is a story that was reviewed in SFFOWW and I received some valuable pointers about how to improve the story.”
Congratulations, Elizabeth!