Editor’s Choice Review June 2017, 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.

Dark Shepherds: The Burn Notice by M Lachi

This is an interesting piece, with some intricate worldbuilding and a lot of careful thought about the setting, background, and characters. Reading it is an immersive experience. There’s so much detail, so much interwoven and interlaced descriptions, ideas, actions and thoughts.

What I’d like to talk about in the context of this Editor’s Choice is not so much the word-for-word, but a general concept that the author has clearly been thinking about, and has been working on. That is the idea of writing tight.

In terms of writing style, one size emphatically does not fit all. It’s not just about voice and word choice and process, but also about the needs of the individual work. A stripped-down, pared-to-the-bone style works for a thriller, for example, where the action is key and the rapid movement of the plot is what brings the reader in. A fantasy epic on the other hand, or a Dune or Exordium-style space opera, needs room to stretch out; takes time for lengthy passages of description and exposition; and explores the lives and surroundings of multiple characters.

This chapter leans distinctly in the latter direction, and in the prologue especially, the prose is a Celtic knotwork of repetition and recapitulation, piling up words and phrases to evoke a sense of complex and many-layered perception. This is the author’s style. But as with everything, there are ways to make that style, along with the author’s ideas, clearer and more accessible to readers.

I like to ask questions when I’m revising or when I’m suggesting revisions for others’ mss. With a ms. that could use some pruning, I look for answers to one or more of the following:

Has this information appeared before in the narrative? Does it need to be repeated here? If so, can I add something new to it, some aspect that wasn’t addressed before, that moves the story forward and further develops the characters or the setting?

Is this information essential for the understanding of the story at this particular point? Can I leave it out and still have the story make sense? Can I move it somewhere else in the narrative where it will be more effective? Does it need to be there at all?

Am I using too many words? Have I piled on the qualifiers? Can I pare them away without losing the meaning? Can my verbs be active and straightforward (walked instead of was walking, for example) and can my phrases be leaner, without extra padding? If I use two or more versions of the same concept, do I need all of them? Can I pick one and let the rest be implied by the context?

Am I repeating the same words over and over? Repetition of words and phrases can be very effective; politicians know this, as do motivational speakers. But as with most rhetorical effects, a little goes a long way. Can I keep it down to once a paragraph or once a page? Can I save it for when I really want the idea to pop? If I take it all out, has the story lost emphasis or vividness?

Am I trusting my reader enough? This question goes along with repetition of words and ideas, as well as infodumps, background information, and so on. Am I trusting my reader to understand what I’m saying? Am I including information that she can pick up through implication? Do I need to remind her of information she’s already seen, especially if she’s seen it more than once? She may need a reminder if it’s been a while, but if it’s important and it’s just happened, she probably just needs a quick pointer, or else she’ll remember it well enough that I can get right to my point without stopping to fill her in.

Have I chosen the right details? As I’m setting up the scene and portraying the character, am I providing too much information? Is it the right information? Have I emphasized minor aspects of the scene or setting or character but written around the major ones? Can I sharpen the focus and, again, trust the reader to get the details I’ve left out through the few I’m chosen to leave in?

Have I chosen the right scene? Have I written the events and interactions that are key to the movement of the story? Have I provided essential information, or is that information consigned to the background? Are characters talking about events that happened offstage rather than experiencing them onstage? Do we need the conversation, or will the scene itself tell the story with more immediacy and effectiveness?

Am I keeping my eye on the prize? If you’re a stylist (as I am), the immediate prize for a writing session is the cascade of words in front of you. What can get lost in the words is what readers in general come to genre for, which is story. The words may be my prize, but for most readers, they’re color and spackle at best and a distraction at worst. Readers want a story that moves forward, that contains believable characters, that satisfies the impulse that brought them to the genre in general and this story in particular. If I give them lots of detailed worldbuilding, they’ll sit for it better than readers of other genres, but eventually they want that beginning-middle-end, rampup-crisis-denouement thing.

For that, I have to be careful about the words-to-story ratio. As with meat to bun in a burger, there are different schools of thought as to which is optimal, but they all come back sooner or later to the nom in the middle. That nom is the story, the plot, the progression of scenes toward some form of conclusion.

That’s what writing tighter can help the story do. Pruning the undergrowth, keeping the best effects, letting them stand out from the rest. This helps build stronger pacing, which is what story-movement is. And that keeps the reader reading, which is the ultimate goal.

–Judith Tarr

On The Shelves

Heart of the Land (Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts, Book 5) by Sarah Prineas (Scholastic Inc. May 2017)

Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan are young heroes who stopped an unstoppable monster. They are Greencloaks — guardians chosen from every nation of Erdas — and together with their powerful spirit animals, they fight to protect their world. But in the ashes of this destruction, there are some who ask: Are the Greencloaks to blame? The young heroes are shocked to find themselves on trial, judged by a council of the world’s leaders. Then the unthinkable happens. The council is attacked from within — by Greencloaks –and an important leader lies slain. In the blink of an eye, Erdas’s saviors become wanted fugitives. Someone is trying to frame them as traitors, but why? As the four friends race to uncover this mystery, only one thing is clear… The war is far from over.

Save

Save

Publication News

Rhonda S. Garcia wanted to tell us: “Just wanted to share my good news. I have a new short up today in the final issue of Truancy Magazine. The issue has some great stories and is dedicated to retellings of myths and legends from Africa, or the African diaspora. Mine is called The Bois, and is a futuristic take on the myth of Papa Bois from my own country.” You can find Rhonda’s story here.

Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[ May 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Cynthia Cloughly
Submission: The Advance on Fourt County – Part 2 of 3 by Matthew Allen
Submitted by: Matthew Allen

 

Publication News

David Busboom wrote to tell us: “Earlier this year I sold my story “Can’t Stop Here” to AUTOMOBILIA from Fahrenheit Books, and my story “Three Hundred Pieces” to HEROIC FANTASY from Flame Tree Publishing. Neither has been released yet, but both are expected later this year, probably by the end of the summer! Both of these stories were greatly improved by putting them through the workshop, and I wouldn’t have sold them without the OWW.”

Jeremy Tolbert got some great news: “I just got word from Trevor at Analog that he’s going to buy my story “The Dissonant Note.” This marks my first sale to Analog!” Jeremy also sold the next novella in his Dungeonspace series, “The Dragon of Dread Peak” to Lightspeed.

Editor’s Choice Review June 2017, 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.

Hymns Of Sand And Stone by Joanne Albertsen

“Hymns of Sand and Stone” caught my eye this month because of its immediate prose, sophisticated use of a complex protagonist, and a tension that rises up between sentences like groundwater. It’s a story about colonialist power dynamics that doesn’t simplify, rooted deeply in how its characters are handled–which is why, this month, I’d like to discuss subtle handling of an unreliable protagonist–and going beyond the Protagonist Is a Bad Person story.

The Protagonist Is a Bad Person story is one of the (many!) useful shorthands that come out of Strange Horizons’s Stories We’ve Seen Too Often page: a post their earlier editorial team made to document persistent slushpile trends and concepts that are so prevalent they’re hard to impress with. It’s a story that can be loosely described as a morality play or parable, one that only exists to impress on the reader fear for the consequences if they act the same way. And while there’s a loose validity in describing “Hymns of Sand and Stone” as examining how its protagonist behaves poorly, and gets a comeuppance in being personally colonized by the local magic, what I’m interested in is how it walks right past that trap into a full-on examination of colonialist power dynamics–how its protagonist behaves harmfully as part of a system of violence–and ends up as a deeply affecting and tension-filled illustration of colonized societies that felt emotionally real.

Crafting a story this carefully balanced takes both insight and skill, and there are a few notable craft decisions that help “Hymns of Sand and Stone” pull off its concept. The most standout is the choice of a second-person POV.

Writing in second person tends to pull strong reactions from readers, and other writers, but considering the subject matter of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”—colonialism, brutality, resistance—and the gaps between what the protagonist can see and the reader’s knowledge, I think it’s an exquisitely appropriate choice of point of view. One of the main effects of second person is explicit complicity between the reader and the protagonist, and for the vast majority of SFF readers, complicity is the core emotional question in a story about colonialism.

The second strong craft choice is how “Hymns of Sand and Stone” builds its fantasy culture on a psychological realism that is exceptionally well-seeded through the piece–and one which has its own arc of progression to follow. A portrait of a character is one thing, but “Hymns of Sand and Stone” includes the excellent decision to make its portrait dynamic. The protagonist’s opening sentence—”You just want to help”—can be at first taken at face value, and then quickly slides from that into “can’t fault the goals, but don’t like the methods” and “we didn’t like it but,” until by the end of the piece, that insistence on benevolent help has morphed into contempt and snarling hate.

Effective fiction often has an arc of growth: something changes in the character between the first paragraph and the last. In “Hymns of Sand and Stone” the protagonist’s personality does not change, but it is revealed, in a way that creates that feeling of change and motion–and echoes up on the thematic level to deepen and complicate into a whole comment on colonialism and how those types of helpers build up and bolster its effects.

It’s an especially effective trajectory to take with a character in the between-place the protagonist occupies: an object of power and pity to Elly and the other servants, and a subject to her husband—one who knows everything about how to minimize his violence and escape his notice. I love the messiness of the power dynamic here: how realistic it is, how alone the protagonist is caught between those power positions, and how that still doesn’t excuse her part in the system that keeps the Sandsbloods subjugated. It’s a position that inspires complex emotional reaction–disgust, compassion, fascination, complicity, and then ultimately self-examination. It’s a position that’s well-calibrated to create effect in readers.

And that, I think, is the major triumph of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”–and what, I think, makes it jump far and away above the vengeful air of a comeuppance story: at no point does it tell readers how to feel about its protagonist. The narrative isn’t assuming an authority over the protagonist, punishing or rewarding her; “Hymns of Sand and Stone” is entirely, on the text level, descriptive. The subtext definitely has opinions on her choices and situation, especially when Elly and the other servants are onscreen, or being imagined, but the text level lets her speak, and that transforms a narrative that could have been coercive–”feel this way about this attitude; these are the rules to follow”–into something that’s descriptive and demonstrative, that gives readers a clear window into a very complex, very common attitude to let us grapple with it ourselves–in second person, in you, in a position of full complicity. “Hymns of Sand and Stone” lets complicated things be complicated, and therefore makes room for a complex reaction in readers: one that’s ultimately going to be more memorable than a platitude.

It’s a significantly accomplished and subtle piece of work, and I look forward to seeing it in print.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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.

Sowing The Seeds by Fredrick Hudgin

I’m somewhat late to the plate thanks to the dog’s broken leg and subsequent surgery (he will recover), with apologies, but here I am at last. I chose this piece because of the author’s note. I could see the enthusiasm and the air of sheer fun, and I went into the story expecting a light adventure.

I did get that, so that part of the mission for me was accomplished. As I read with my crit-hat on, I found myself falling into worldbuilding mode, as I do when I’m helping my writing students develop their worlds and characters.

Usually I start asking questions. The author doesn’t have to answer all or even most of them—just the ones that help the most with the underpinnings of the story. Some will get a firm, “No! That’s not where I’m going at all!” Others will give rise to their own questions, and maybe the world will expand and the story follow suit. And still others may get the classic editorial “Oh crap yes, you’re right, I have to fix that.”

With that in mind, here are some questions to ponder while the revision proceeds.

In your introductory note you say, “And why not make the claim jumpers Mer people! I don’t see many Mer people in Sci Fi. And make the captain female!” All of which is fun stuff, but my question is, is it new or radical to have [a] a female captain or [b] a female mer-person? Aren’t merfolk more commonly seen as female, i.e. mermaids?

Is there anything else you can do to make this species and this captain different? Do they have to be binary? Is there a reason why male would be default and female unusual enough to be worth noting? Or why species need to come in two genders? Not one? Or three? Or however many? Or no gender at all?

Quite far along in the story, you reveal that Captain Phillium is an octopus. It might help to know this at the start—the reader can get a clearer picture of him. I happen to love octopuses, and there are things about them that might add some depth and extra flavor to your portrayal of this character.

One of the things about the species is that it is highly intelligent but also extremely short-lived. As soon as an octopus mates, if it’s male, it’s either eaten or it dies soon after mating. If it’s female, it may eat its mate, and it will die shortly after its eggs hatch.

This means that a retro human-style marriage with a wife at home is kind of unlikely. Unless he’s out in space having a last hurrah before he dies, and she’s home incubating the eggs, starving slowly and expecting to die soon. Or they’ve married in order to reproduce, but the actual act will happen after this voyage—and he’s fully expecting to go home, have sex, and become his wife’s dinner. He may be plotting all sorts of ways to make the babies but still escape alive (but he’ll die within months anyway because once that part of his life is done, so is he).

Or, is marriage for this species something different? What would it be? A business contract? A political alliance? Why would octopuses need marriage?

Bear in mind too that female octopuses are often much larger than the males. Would it make more sense for the captain to be female, since males are so much smaller and more vulnerable? Or have males gone into space as part of a culture-wide campaign to avoid being eaten by the females back home? Have the females accepted this? Or are they the big corporate bosses? (I have more questions about those below.)

Much the same would apply to your arachnids. Big, dominant females who eat their husbands. Is your whole spacefaring culture about males having what fun and freedom they can before their inevitable death? You do have various mammalian types, but in subordinate roles; the primary roles are generally held by octopoids and arachnids—for whom gender and reproduction are very different than they are for other species.

Now think about what this does to your story about claim jumpers led by a female captain. If merpeople relate to one another more or less as humans do, though perhaps with a tendency toward matriarchy (does their leader need to be a king? Why not a queen?), consider how deep the differences are with a species for which the war between the sexes is real, inevitable, and deadly.

For the mer captain, maybe this is just business. For Captain Phillium, a female adversary must, according to everything he knows, be out to kill and eat him. How will that affect the intensity of their reactions to each other? Will he see a deadly threat when all she intends is a bit of petty larceny?

Meanwhile, what about the species Phillium is ordered to elevate? Why primates? Why not octopoids or arachnids? Wouldn’t he gravitate more toward his own kind? Are there solid business reasons for corporate to prefer primates over other species?

Or is there another motive here? Phillium is about to raise up a species that is near-immortal by octopoid standards, and for which reproduction is not a death sentence. And, what’s more, the male tends to be larger than the female. Is this a strike back at the tyranny of octopoid biology? A campaign of subversion against the females? A long-running political game played by his superiors, which Phillium might begin to see as he carries out his orders?

After all, the process of seeding planets is a really, really long game. Octopoids individually are extremely short-lived. Who is really in charge? What species began the whole process? Is it still extant? Would Phillium be aware of it? If so, how would he feel about it? If not, would that ignorance be intentional on the part of the big bosses? Do they have ulterior motives that might come into play here, with two different species moving in to raise up two different sets of not yet sentient life forms?

What if both applications were accepted? Is there a reason why that’s not allowed? As it is, one species is aquatic and the other is not. If multiple species can get along on starships, why not on planets? Wouldn’t corporate see this as a way to double up on their investment?

These are just some of the questions I found myself asking as I read. What you do with them is entirely up to you. It really is a fun universe, with some very interesting characters and cultures. There’s lots of scope for further stories, too.

–Judith Tarr

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The best stories can come from imagining yourself in another place, another situation.

Pictures this: You go to bed in your own house and wake up in a colony ship, millions of miles out in space. You wander levels of this huge space for days, and while there is plenty of food and water, you can’t find another person anywhere.

Now ask yourself, as the author, how this happened, why it happened, and what can you do?

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).

Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, 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.

The Hole In The Flame by J.L. Roberts

I am in love with the title of this story. It’s unique, it’s evocative, it’s directly relevant to the plot and the protagonist. It caught my eye right away and drew me in.

I really like a number of things about the story. The depiction of the fire as a happy sentient, and Cassie’s ability to see and share it. The concept of ghost/memories/apparitions as a form of time travel, and fire as the power source. The images of both the fire and the time past, which are vivid and evocative.

I do have some questions and confusions about the draft. Some will be resolved with a line edit and polish, breaking up paragraphs for greater clarity, and so on. Others may need expansion or clarification, or possibly rethinking.

Do I feel anything for Cassie? I see that she’s confident, that she has a plan, that she’s not afraid of the fire and in fact she’s pleased and excited about it. What I’m not getting is why.

It’s evident that fire for her is a friendly force, and that it’s a kind of time travel. Does she pass through into the past every time she’s called to a fire? Or has she been aiming for this result and achieving it by degrees, and finally she’s succeeded? I’d add the option of her not knowing what will happen if she follows Bobby’s apparition, but the impression I get is that she wants it and that’s why she’s here.

This leads me to a fundamental question. Why does she want to go back in time? What is she trying to accomplish? What does she expect will happen when she gets there? Is it death she’s aiming for? Or is she trying to change the past? How does Bobby’s voice enter into this, and what is the distinction between the voice she hears in the outside world and the one she’s hearing inside the fire? Is this some sort of revenge for past sins, evil force trying to devour her, old love wanting her back, past trying to get her to alter it and possibly bring Bobby (or Sam) back to life, or…?

You don’t have to spell out every single thing; you can be mysterious and allusive. Part of the appeal of the subgenre this story seems to fit into (on which more below) is that it doesn’t explain everything. It leaves some things to the reader’s imagination. It revolves around ambiguity. But it’s important to be just clear enough that the reader is sure the obscure bits are meant to be so.

I wondered as I read, how Cassie could get away with “accidentally” cutting off communications every time. Wouldn’t she be called on it? Would her fellow firefighters and her superiors detect a pattern? Has Edgar started to catch on, and that’s what the body language is about when he finds the communications device she’s dropped? When he comes back and tries to carry her out, is this something he’s done before, or that he’s been expecting to have to do? What are the undercurrents here?

It seems clear that he sees the apparition of Bobby. Is this a first? Has it happened before? Should Cassie be more worried about it than she is? Or is she so sure she’s leaving forever that it doesn’t matter?

I am a bear of little brain, and I did not quite get who Bobby is, or whether Sam is also Bobby, because Bobby disappears near the end and the hole in the flame becomes Sam. Are they both supposed to be there? Is Bobby the guide and Sam the one he’s leading her to? What would he do that? What does he want from her?

The line edit I mentioned above will help answer my questions, along a thorough proofread. In the draft, words tumble over each other, phrases and sentences repeat verbatim, and the effect is rather like the fire itself: exuberant, over the top, and headlong as it tumbles through the telling of the story. There’s great energy in it, at the expense of clarity; but that’s what revision is for. I’d definitely be in favor of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm, but layering in a clearer sense of who and what and why.

I had one further thought as I read and reread the story. It’s labeled Urban Fantasy, and this led me to reflect on genre markers, tropes and signals that tell a reader what to expect within the confines of the genre.

When I think of UF, I think of an urban setting, of course, and the supernatural or the fantastic underpinning a more or less contemporary setting. The popular trope of the kickass female hunter of supernatural beings, or the noir detective investigating odd or inexplicable crimes, isn’t all there is to it, but it’s an indicator of the voice and “feel” of urban fantasy.

The force of nature personified, its gleeful destructiveness, the appearance of ghosts or revenants from the past, the protagonist who is compelled to follow them even if it means her death—those all say horror or dark fantasy to me. If this were UF I’d look for Cassie to have some way of controlling or being controlled by supernatural beings—the fire, in this case. She’d either fight it or ally with it, for reasons that would become apparent in the course of the story.

Does it make a difference what label an author or publisher puts on a story? It does, I think: quite a lot in terms of marketing the final draft, but also in regard to what the reader expects.

Readers tend to like their labels; they know what they’re getting, they know how to react as the story unfolds, and they also know what kind of payoff they can reasonably expect to get. If the story presents a couple, for example, and the reader is told it’s a romance, she looks for the story to focus fairly tightly on an emotional arc (down as well as up) culminating in a happy ending. If it’s a space opera, on the other hand, the couple may or may not get together romantically, and their relationship won’t be the first priority; the heart of the story will be the adventure in space.

If the label isn’t quite right, the story can be very good or even brilliant but still draw reader criticism and editorial rejections. It’s like the cooking shows in which the judges will say, “You called this a semifreddo but it’s a very tasty, old-fashioned American ice cream. You promised us a particular thing, and you didn’t provide it. That’s why we had to chop you.”

Here, we have a pretty satisfyingly atmospheric dark fantasy with ghosts and a side of time travel. Our protagonist has a thing for fire, she can see her past in it, and she ends up giving herself to it. Relabeling the story may more clearly reflect what the story is about, and give it a better chance of reaching the audience that will most appreciate it.

–Judith Tarr