Editor’s Choice Review September 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Iniquity’s Child, Chapter 4 by Crash Froelich

I love mysteries and thrillers, and if they have an SF or supernatural twist, so much the better—so I enjoyed this chapter. It has a nice grounding in the physical setting, and I get a sense of the characters, notably the protagonist and Spooky, who has a manic-pixie-dreamgirl vibe about her.

What I’d like to talk about in this Editor’s Choice crit is a particular aspect of craft: Dialogue.

Dialogue is an interesting animal. Some writers can spin it off just about automatically, though for them it can become so much its own thing that it loses track of plot and pacing. Others struggle with it.

Truly realistic dialogue and fictionally realistic dialogue are two completely different things. If you go out and record actual conversations, there’s very little story-meat in them. They mostly consist of what I call filler: Hello, how are you, what are you up to, I’m fine, nothing much, and so on. These preprogrammed phrases serve as social lubricants, and provide transitions into and out of human interactions, but they don’t as a rule convey actual, unique or relevant information.

In fiction, there’s this thing called narrative economy. The writer pares away extraneous details and focuses as directly as possible on the themes, actions, words, and concepts that are directly relevant to the plot and help to move it forward. He may scatter the text with red herrings, especially if he’s writing a mystery or telling the story through an unreliable narrator, but those details are also carefully chosen to misdirect and distract. They’re there for a reason.

Or to put it another way, the story we read is the good-parts version. Everything else either exists in the background or simply doesn’t need to be there.

Dialogue works the same way. If anything, because spoken words stand out so dramatically from the surrounding text, it’s even more important to prune away the excess. The reader will fill it in as applicable, or the writer can do so with a quick line or so of framing. Then what’s actually on the page is the information that moves the story from that scene to the next.

New information, or new light on information already conveyed, is the engine that drives plot. Dialogue is a great way to make this happen, but even more than narrative and exposition, dialogue needs to be directly on point.

Readers are quite good at picking up implied information, which in dialogue would be most stock and filler phrases. That’s not to say those phrases should never be there—a well-applied bit of conversational filler can be a great vehicle for character development or narrative irony. But for the most part, if it’s not actually saying something, it doesn’t need to be said. The reader will get it, and you can get straight to the point of the conversation.

In this chapter, dialogue does several things. In the scene at the Ascendance building, Sorgen questions employees about Dr. Parsons, with a side dish of snarky interaction with the receptionist. The next scene features a subset of dialogue, a phone conversation with Spooky, during which Sorgens sets up a face-to-face meeting. A few changes of venue later, Sorgen reviews a video that conveys important information, followed by the meeting with Spooky and, shortly thereafter, Kelli. The chapter ends with a heart-to-heart in the car between Sorgen and Spooky.

Each form of dialogue tries to do a different thing. It undertakes to move the story forward, establish character and interaction, expand the protagonist’s (and therefore the reader’s) knowledge of the case, and introduce information that will be relevant later. Even coming in cold, without having read the opening chapters, I get a sense of who Sorgen and Spooky are, what they are to each other, and how the various subsidiary characters fit into the picture.

These are all excellent goals, with good support in the needs of the story. Wher the dialogue as written falls short is in the predominance of filler over substance.

This is particularly true in the Ascendance sequence. We get the throat-clearing portions of the conversation—greetings, introductions, stage business (body movements and expressions, especially), and general setup for each interrogation—but the actual interrogation happens effectively offstage, in synopsis. Here’s the bread, here’s the mayo, but there’s no meat in the sandwich.

The meat is where the story is. The dialogue that’s written can for the most part be replaced with quick sketch-and-framing segments, and what’s currently summary needs to be written as dialogue. Basically turn the scene inside out: turn dialogue into summary and summary into dialogue. And then you’ve got a living, vibrant scene with characters who come alive on the page.

I’d also, as a matter of characterization, wonder if Sandy the brassy receptionist fits the setting. Are her comments appropriate to the corporate culture of which she is the immediate public face? Is Sorgen responding appropriately in light of who they both are and what his job is? Would Sandy say the things about her boss that she says to Sorgen, in that setting, where she could easily be overheard? Does this make sense? Is it part of your overall plan? If so, you might clarify that her extremely loose lips are a plot and/or she’s a mole, and this is a performance designed to elicit some information or action that will help resolve the case.

The fondness for filler carries on through the rest of the scenes which feature dialogue. Do you really need all of the details in the phone conversation, for example? Can it be shorter and punchier, while still conveying his very avuncular relationship with her (which is borderline creepy—if not intentional, maybe tone it down)? Do you need the hello-goodbye parts? Can you just get right in and then when it’s done, shift scene without losing any key information?

The later segments of dialogue move more quickly, though Kelli arrives and leaves a bit too fast to keep up with—you might frame that a little more solidly. I wonder too, as her conversations with Sorgen evolve, if Spooky is a little too little-girl in the way she talks and acts. Is she running a con? Is he in on it, or is he in denial? Do you want her to come on so strongly?

How old is she, exactly? She talks as if she’s prepubescent. This is something that’s probably established in the earlier chapters—it just caught my eye here, in the way she talks and acts. She seems very young, emotionally if not physically. The words she uses and the way she looks and moves point to immaturity and dependence on the protective Uncle Ricky.They might also, in a fuller context, point to her manipulation of him through plays on his sympathy and his protective or fatherly instincts.

All in all, I see plenty of potential here, especially once the dialogue comes into its own. A little less filler, a little more story-stuff, and you’ll be good to go.

–Judith Tarr

 

Publication News

Christine Lucas sends great news: “My short story “Pinch of Chaos” has been accepted to the “In Cat’s Eye” anthology. This story is very dear to my heart, since it was the first I started back in early 2015, after my long hiatus, and the first one I posted in OWW after my return. Many thanks to all who critted.”

Editor’s Choice Review September 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

My Lady, Malady, Mad Lady by RM Graves

This story grabbed my attention from the first paragraph and kept me interested until the last.  So many stories feel so familiar, it’s great when a story surprises me or heads in an unexpected direction.  The description of the narrator “spreading out” is awesome.  On the other hand, I read many stories that seem like they’re trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, not because they have something to say.  What I appreciate most about “My Lady, Malady Mad Lady” is that the surreal elements ultimately provide a payoff, an insight into human nature, rather than just showing me a bunch of weird stuff and leaving me with nothing more.

I do think that payoff could be strengthened , though.  For me, the ending suggests that the narrator’s obsession with helping his family climb up out of a hole has made him too inwardly focused.  He has been missing what’s important–the external world and his family–by focusing on this perhaps non-existent problem.  I like that, but I don’t feel the earlier part of the story sets this up as well as it might.  If the problem is his obsession with this hole, what happened before the beginning of the story to trigger or escalate his worry?  It seems as if he has thought of life as a climb up a cliff for a long time.  But something must have happened to increase his fear of failing at this climb.  Did he feel his father was helping, or would help with an inheritance upon his death, but the inheritance was quickly spent and they are in more debt than ever?  Has he lost his job or have his hours cut back?  I think you could make a reference to something like this early in the story.

Some of the details also don’t seem to work with the ending.  When the narrator relates that his eyes would “sometimes roll to the back of [his] head when [he]rested on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon,” that makes he think that his contemplation of the hole is something he does for relaxation and recreation.  Instead, I would think that his eyes would do that when he’s at work, when he is paying the bills, when anyone in his family asks for anything, at night, as well as on Sunday afternoons when he’s trying to relax but can’t.  Instead of resting on the sofa, I think he would be pacing or distracted.

His realization that he is climbing down instead of up seems a passing thought, when I think it should be a horrifying motivator.  He ought to be desperately trying to figure out how to flip it around, instead of just thinking that once and dropping it.  How does he think he can turn it around?  Worrying about this can escalate his obsession with this hole further.

The narrator seems too passive at times.  If this concern has frozen him into inaction, so all he can do is worry, that needs to be clearer.  When he finally does act, going to the doctor and then the Mad Lady, I don’t really believe he would do it.  I understand his wife is pushing him, but I think he needs his own reason to go.  Maybe he sees that his transformation is getting worse.  Maybe his penis is disappearing or something similar to escalate his problem and make him desperate enough to try something he hasn’t been willing to do before.

I think some changes like these will make the ending feel more “right” and will also make it more powerful.

I hope my comments are helpful.  I really enjoyed the bizarre images and the theme.

–Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey

Member News Of Note

Our members and Resident Editors continue to accumulate honors for their work.

We at OWW would like to congratulate Resident Editor Leah Bobet. Her novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, is the 2016 winner of the Sunburst Award for Young Adult Fiction.

On The Shelves

 

The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes by Wade Albert White ( Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, September 2016)  TheAdventurersGuide_finalcover- coming in September

Anne has spent most of her thirteen years dreaming of the day she and her best friend Penelope will finally leave Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children. When the big day arrives, a series of very curious happenings lead to Anne being charged with an epic quest. Anne, Penelope, and new questing partner Hiro have only days to travel to strange new locales, solve myriad riddles, and triumph over monstrous foes–or face the horrible consequences.

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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.

[ August 2016] Honor Roll Nominees]

Reviewer: Boz Flamagin
Submission: The Woman Who Saw The Beast Drinking by Morgan Moore
Submitted by: Morgan Moore

Reviewer: E.M. Goldsmith
Submission: Prologue and Chapter 1 by Mark White
Submitted by: Mark White

Reviewer: Boz Flamagin
Submission: Frank Takes a Walk C4C by Peter Mackey
Submitted by: Peter Mackey
Nominator’s Comments: Boz does a deep, insightful read. Learn from these comments, and your work will be better.

Reviewer: Robyn Hamilton
Submission: Ordshaw Fairy Tales by Phil Williams
Submitted by: Phil Williams

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Ever wonder how many completely different stories can be written with the same first line? That’s the challenge this month, to see how many story ideas you can come up with from this first line:

The door opened no more than an inch, and stuck fast.

Out of all those story ideas, go write the one you think will work best.

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).

 

 

On The Shelves

Of Sand and Malice Made: A Shattered Sands Novel (Song of Shattered Sands) by Brad Beaulieu (DAW September, 2016)

sand and malice brad

Çeda, the heroine of the novel Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, is the youngest pit fighter in the history of the great desert city of Sharakhai. In this prequel, she has already made her name in the arena as the fearsome, undefeated White Wolf; none but her closest friends and allies know her true identity.

But this all changes when she crosses the path of Rümayesh, an ehrekh, a sadistic creature forged long ago by the god of chaos. The ehrekh are usually desert dwellers, but this one lurks in the dark corners of Sharakhai, toying with and preying on humans. As Rümayesh works to unmask the White Wolf and claim Çeda for her own, Çeda’s struggle becomes a battle for her very soul.

 

Like A River Glorious (Gold Seer Trilogy) by Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books, September 2016)river by rae

After her harrowing journey west to California, Lee Westfall has finally found a new home—one rich in gold, thanks to her magical power, a power that seems to be changing every day. But this home is rich in other ways, too: with friends who are searching for a place to be themselves, just as she is, and with love. Jefferson—her longtime best friend—hasn’t stopped trying to win her heart. And Lee is more and more tempted to say yes. But her uncle Hiram hasn’t given up his quest to get Lee and her power under his control. When she’s kidnapped and taken to him, Lee sees firsthand the depths of her uncle’s villainy. Yet Lee’s magic is growing. Gold no longer simply sings to her, it listens. It obeys her call. Is it enough to destroy her uncle once and for all?

 

Cloudbound (Bone Universe) by Fran Wilde (Tor Books, September 2016) cloudbound

After the dust settles, the City of living bones begins to die, and more trouble brews beneath the clouds in this stirring companion to Fran Wilde’s Updraft.

When Kirit Densira left her home tower for the skies, she gave up many things: her beloved family, her known way of life, her dreams of flying as a trader for her tower, her dreams. Kirit set her City upside down, and fomented a massive rebellion at the Spire, to the good of the towers–but months later, everything has fallen to pieces. With the Towers in disarray, without a governing body or any defense against the dangers lurking in the clouds, daily life is full of terror and strife. Nat, Kirit’s wing-brother, sets out to be a hero in his own way–sitting on the new Council to cast votes protecting Tower-born, and exploring lower tiers to find more materials to repair the struggling City. But what he finds down-tier is more secrets–and now Nat will have to decide who to trust, and how to trust himself without losing those he holds most dear, before a dangerous myth raises a surprisingly realistic threat to the crippled City,

 

 

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August 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Stolen Blade (Chapter 3) by Samia Hayes

This is a really good, solid chapter that held my attention and engaged my sympathy and interest throughout; it’s fast-paced, but paired with a cautious point of view character it’s also enjoyably tense, and the balance between that pace and that tension is kept up pretty well. Where I think it could be improved is with some attention to language, and, relatedly, in the interaction with Marcus.

You’ve chosen a pretty conversational prose style, one that sometimes gets called “invisible prose,” and this suits your plot and subject matter very well: it’s contemporary society with a twist, so you’re free to play with familiar idiom and inflection. But you have a tendency to get bogged down in repetitive language, and this, in turn, bogs down your action: do a search for how many times a variation on “growl” occurs in a short span of words, or the fact that “the house growled” happens twice in the chapter. Once, and it’s a cool substitution; twice, and it’s distracting.

Something similar’s happening with Marcus’ introduction:

An engine roared down the driveway, knocking away the gravel in its path. A white range rover splattered with mud pulled up beside Ally’s red car. A monster in human skin stepped out of the driver’s seat. He was built solid, his lean muscles bulging under his t-shirt. His hair was a straight, nondescript brown, cut short enough that it wouldn’t fall in front of his eyes if someone was suicidal enough to hit him. The air around his body pulsed with his magic as he stood surveying the yard. His posture was possessive, as if everything and everyone around him was his.

(Emphases mine)

There is so much repetition of subject-verb-object construction throughout this paragraph that I get lost, but mostly I’ve highlighted instances of redundancy or unnecessary description. How does the engine knock away gravel in its path separately from the white range rover? Why is it necessary to separate those things from each other? Why specify that Ally’s car is red? Why add that Marcus’ muscles bulge when you’ve said he’s built solidly? If his posture is possessive, why do you need to explain what possessive means in the second half of the sentence?

All of this means that when Marcus appears, I feel tired rather than concerned.

It makes perfect sense to slow things down a bit when someone as threatening as Marcus arrives on the scene, to decompress your storytelling and focus on small details — but the choice of detail should be careful and deliberate enough that you don’t need to repeat it over and over.

A white, mud-splattered range rover roared down the driveway, knocking away the gravel in its path as it pulled up next to Ally’s car. A monster in human skin stepped out of the driver’s seat. Lean muscle bulged under his t-shirt. His hair was straight and brown, cut short enough that it wouldn’t fall in front of his eyes if someone was suicidal enough to hit him. The air around his body pulsed with his magic as he surveyed the yard as if everything and everyone around him was his. Even his posture was possessive.

I think this could be improved further, breaking up the description by cutting away to Ally or Magalie’s reactions earlier, spreading it out. But clearing out the repetition’s like weeding a garden: it lets the description you’ve already done take up its space and do its work unhampered by sentences that strain a reader’s attention by giving them information twice.

(OK maybe that’s not totally like weeding. Muddling metaphors is generally to be avoided also. Do as I say, not as I etc.)

That aside, though, this is a really strong piece of work that I thoroughly enjoyed. This section only stuck out as much as it did because the rest of it was so smooth and effective.

–Amal El-Mohtar