Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Dark Horizon Chapter One by Taylor Preston

This opening chapter sends good, solid space-opera signals: the spaceship on the wrong side of the law, the daring raid, the bits of background both technical and political. There’s one female protagonist in an otherwise all-male crew, but other women characters may show up later to even out the gender balance.

A couple of things might help make this a stronger, punchier opening, and they’re both related to the portrayal of the protagonist. The first is the handling of viewpoint, and the second is the art of writing active prose.

When we’re introduced to Zara, we get frequent reminders that she’s our viewpoint character. She stares, wonders, extends her faculties, knows, thinks; her pulse quickens, she’s on edge, she has trouble concentrating, and so on through the chapter. A favorite word crops up here—nervous; it will recur at intervals, and apply to other characters as well as Zara. (We all have a favorite word; when we revise, one of the first things we do is run a global search to see how many times we’ve used it.)

Viewpoint is important in this chapter. One of Zara’s jobs is to monitor other characters when they’re off the ship. She has to juggle multiple sets of sensory input, while also flying the ship and watching out for enemy action.

It’s a challenge for the author as well as the character to keep all of these balls in the air at once. In addition to frequent viewpoint-tagging, we get examples of Zara’s struggles with the level of multitasking she has to do. It’s a big job with a lot of responsibilities.

In revision it might be worth rethinking some of this. First, can some of these jobs be assigned to other members of the crew, or can some of them be done by the ship itself? If the ship is being flown by an AI, that gives Zara more mental room to monitor the mission on the Calypso. (And if the ship doesn’t have an AI or autopilot, that’s an important piece of worldbuilding; we’ll need a hint here as to why.)

Also think about Zara’s competence—her qualifications for the job. Is she performing in accordance with her pay grade? Are her struggles with multiple data inputs appropriate for someone who presumably was hired to do this particular thing?

Note how often she’s taken by surprise during the mission (surprise is another favorite word). If she’s being asked to do a job she’s not trained sufficiently to do, that’s a plot point, as well as a danger to the rest of the crew. Will this be an issue later in the novel? Has she padded her resume, or claimed qualifications she doesn’t have? If so, it might help to clarify this here.

If not, then again it’s rethinking time. What should Zara know if she is qualified to do this job? How should she handle the various responsibilities? If she struggles, what strong, plot-related reason can she have for not being able to do her job?

Zara’s struggles with her job are somewhat similar to the author’s struggles with establishing viewpoint. The frequency of viewpoint tags, especially in the opening paragraphs, not only reminds the reader that Zara is the protagonist, but also injects the author into the narrative. “You know what I mean? You get it? You sure?”

I’d suggest reducing the number of tags. Trust the reader to know who is telling the story. Provide at most one viewpoint word per paragraph, and let the rest happen without the filter of Zara’s senses. They’re still there in the background, but they only need to come to the fore when it’s particularly important to know that she’s doing the thinking and feeling.

In action-adventure fiction, the more immediate the reader’s experience, the more compelling it tends to be. The reader wants to feel as if she’s living the adventure with the characters. If she catches sight of the author behind the curtain, she may lose that feeling, and be thrown out of the story.

Strong, clear, active prose is particularly important in action scenes. Tight writing is key. No excess wordage. Whatever is there has to be there.

When we met Alex and Karl, for example, we get a description of each man. The scene is tense; they’re about to head off on a dangerous mission. But the narrative stops for a pair of visual snapshots. Do we need those particular details in that particular place? What one detail might sum up each character—a contrast, perhaps, between the way each one moves or talks or acts toward Zara? If that detail is relevant right then, it’s memorable. It sets us up for how the two crewmen will handle the mission, and it also helps establish how Zara perceives each of them.

During the mission, sharper, more concise writing will help build tension and enhance the suspense. For example, does Zara need to tell the men what they already know about the timing? Can a brief line of narrative replace the dialogue? Something like: They only had X minutes to get in and out before the AI caught on.

Likewise, do we need Zara’s extended description of what each man is feeling, with its repetitions of nervous and surprise and its passive verb constructions? Can each be condensed into a short sentence, one about how different Alex is inside than she thought, and the other about how accurately she’s always read Karl? It might even be possible to combine the two into one rapid and effective sentence.

Short, strong, active—keep those words in mind during revision. Think too about how much exposition and backstory the scene needs, and whether that, too, might be tightened and condensed and focused. What do we absolutely need to know right here and now in order to understand what’s going on, and what can wait until later in the narrative? Is there one specific detail that contains all the others, and can that be conveyed clearly and simply, with an active verb and minimal repetition of words? That’s the one to keep. The reader will pick up on the rest.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Ginny Mambo by Michael Keyton

There are a lot of things to like in this submission. The idea of the old-style noir detective in a modern setting—I’ve always liked stories about time-traveling characters. The elements of voodoo, starring Baron Samedi. The dark, complicated plot with language to match.

The author notes that “Ginny Mambo” is the first installment in a series of short stories about Clay Cross, and therefore it “demands some backstory/context.” Backstory is good, and useful, and important. The trick is to figure out what constitutes backstory and what belongs in the foreground, and then to balance story-past and story-present in a way that makes sense to the reader and does justice to both.

With the first story in a series, it’s even more important to be clear about the main elements. One of these would be the fact that Clay is a literal anachronism transported from the Forties to the present. There is some mention of this, but it tends to get lost in the intricacies of the prose, between the atmospheric setting and Clay’s own verbal idiosyncrasies. It might help to have an additional reference or two to the era he comes from and the one he finds himself in—in so many words, with the kind of clarity and concision that marks the author’s note. Not a lot, not repeated over and over, but just a bit more to underscore who he is and how he got here.

Once we’re clearer about Clay, we may want to be clearer about Ginny Mambo as well. She’s talked about in every scene, and her minions make regular appearances until we get the grand reveal of the monster herself. What I as a reader am missing is a sense of direct experience. People are telling each other (and by extension me) about this powerful antagonist, and telling each other how dangerous she is, but the real danger happens mostly offstage.

I wanted a good, solid flashback in the first scene or two, maybe the time when Clay was encanted into the bottle, and the time when Ginny transformed from woman into reptile, with—even if just a line or two—a snapshot of the damage she did. If we see Ginny in an early scene, however brief, we have an investment in Clay and company’s mission. We know what they’re facing. Tension builds as her minions break through in scene after scene. Then the final scene hits with heightened force.

Talking about important events in general, rather than letting them happen onstage, is a technique best used sparingly. Somewhat paradoxically, conversations that don’t happen, such as this one,

Sheri was doing my job for me, asking questions. Jake had drunk here. He’d been one of the ‘characters’, those who others paid to laugh at and feel good about themselves. Only Jake had a secret, something worth killing for, and it had something to do with a detachable leg,

might work better if they’re written out as dialogue. It’s all about balance and story-movement and our word of the day, clarity.

Clarity is a crucial tool in the storyteller’s box, and clarity in language is as important as clarity in plotting and structure. Clay has unusual verbal mannerisms that are meant to contribute to his fish-out-of-water vibe, and they’re also aimed at a wry, noir sort of humor. This is cool and ambitious and can be very effective, but it needs careful and meticulous handling.

One particular device that shows up in multiple places is ongoing embroidery of thoughts and images.

I was talking about the book in her hand, not the small screen permanently on mute. Screens are for stumblebums grazing on chicken fry or breeding the new feral horde. Give me a book I can open or close, occasionally burn. In my experience screens regurgitate lies and salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don’t want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

Sometimes words and phrases repeat.

Mind you, things could have been worse, like being trapped as a hairdresser or worse. Guess I was grateful. Like I said, things could have been worse.

There’s an incantatory rhythm in this kind of prose, but it tends to clog the gears of the story. While the character jumps from one thought to the next, sometimes cycling back through the same words and phrases, sometimes bouncing off on a tangent, the plot loses focus. It can’t move forward.

Combined with Clay’s unique figurative constructions—

her lips like two dark cherries holding a worm

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then

She smiled and my brains turned to ice cream

the recursive style creates an unusual and suitably dark atmosphere with the occasional flash of gonzo wit. But a little goes a long way. When the same images repeat—the dress that can raise the dead, the brains turning to frozen dairy dessert—the repetition may weaken rather than strengthen the effect. Once is wow. Twice or more is Ya get it? Ya get it? HEY!

It might be helpful to weave in new images, or change the original ones in unexpected ways. Or simply let the image stand by itself and drop down to neutral narration for a bit before shifting back to figurative language.

The potential is there. I see it in this lovely passage:

The boy walked with a demure swagger, his body almost touching Clay’s. Flirtatious, I thought. Dangerous.

That’s the way to do it. Deft, clear, and perfectly to the point.

–Judith Tarr

Grapevine/Market News

Truancy is a semipro market for revised folktales, legends, myth, and retelling of traditional narratives. They are reading for issues 6 and 7 until September 30,2019. They pay 2 cents per word for stories between 1,000 and 3,000 words, and a flat $15 for poetry. Full guidelines are here.

Frozen Wavelets is an e-zine of speculative flash fiction and poetry. They are looking for flash no longer than 750 words, and poems 10 lines or less. Payment for flash is 6 cents per word and submissions open July 1st. Full information is here. 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Picture a long sterile hallway. At the end of the hall are three closed doors. Your character stares at the doors, unsure which one to choose. She finally opens the door on the left and a voice says “Welcome to your life.”

Write a story about what happens next.

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 Award June 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.

The Ruby of Sindbâd by Isabel Canas

I was drawn to “The Ruby of Sindbâd” this month by its lush descriptive prose, its sense of place, and the way it creates narrative tension inside one closed, quiet room. However, it also had areas of craft that could be shored up, rethought, or handled differently to address the author’s attached question: Whether it’s a piece to save, or a piece to trunk. This month, I’d like to go directly to that, and discuss how to choose a direction for a piece whose strengths and weaknesses mean each approach produces a very different story.

“The Ruby of Sindbâd” has some real strengths: it’s strongly paced and great with texture: shades and colours, the provenance of objects, and the understanding of the Turki prince as a colonialist surrounded by the spoils of colonialism—Shahrzad included. The slightly different pronunciations of book titles, the depiction of an empire as assembled, not monochrome, make this world feel inhabited, alive, real. There’s a strong attention to material culture here, and a deft hand with imagery.

To this reader, however, the primary issue with “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is wholly structural, and it stems from the characterization. There are two characters in this piece—which means both characters have to carry more weight, and stand in for more humanity—and neither Shahrzad nor Il-Arslan are precisely nuanced. Il-Arslan is an archetypical rich womanizing conqueror, “arrogant” and with no depth beyond kidnapping, womanizing, and “drinking with his viziers”. He’s a straw emperor, shorthanded.

Shahrzad is the weak-appearing woman who is coolly much more powerful than she appears, but the trouble is her absolute lack of textual three-dimensionality—not the reminders that Il-Arslan has power over her or her thorough personal history but her internal narrative, her body language, her reactions—effectively undermines and erases any tension over her fate. Shahrzad’s approach to this encounter is “My plan depends on it” and a grim smile while she ditches the body; Il-Arslan is never a threat. We, the readers, know this story and know how it’s going to go, and so, apparently, does Shahrzad. “The Ruby of Sindbâd” says it’s about escape and telling your truths, about having a story that is stronger than that imposed on you, but structurally, it reduces to a straightforward revenge narrative—a straightforward act of dominance—because the outcome is never, ever in doubt. And when looked at in terms of conflict assessment—through the lens of a story is a character in a situation with a problem or challenge—that means it is very hard to make this a story, because Shahrzad doesn’t really have much of a challenge. Someone tries—apparently weakly—to hurt her; she overwhelmingly hurts him back and takes everything in the process.

It’s that lack of challenge that takes the air out of the story, and makes the last line—the punchline—feel so nasty to me as a reader. This is not a situation in which Shahrzad was ever disempowered, afraid, or anywhere but comfortably in the power position, despite the occasional protests and her being far from home. She has a magic Il-Arslan can’t defend against, she’s apparently just been waiting for her moment to use it, and she is alone with him. It’s over before it started. The little toss of “a mirror for princes” back in dead Il-Arslan’s face reads as the mockery of—ironically—a conqueror; it reads as a sneering I-told-you-so to someone who, trappings aside, has been shown by every beat of this story as utterly incapable of fighting back. And I’m unsure, as a reader, who ending on a metaphorical face jammed in the dirt—that little dominance—is for, precisely; what communicative act “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is after, what it wants to evoke in its readers.

Without weighing in on the question of trunking, if there was to be a revision effort, I’d like to explore a few strategies I think might be effective for determining where to put the work in.

The first stems from that last question: While we don’t always write with readers in mind, and frequently the best work starts in deliberately forgetting readers are around and honestly expressing, it’s a good structural diagnostic to bring the reader lens in during editing. What do we want a story to evoke in readers? Which feeling or idea do we, as writers, want to communicate? Once there’s a solid answer to that question—about speaking one’s truth courageously, or something else—it’s easier to look at edits which will bring that feeling out: either by realigning the nature of the metaphors we’re using, or trimming down information that gets in the way, or adding human urges, needs, and reactions that underline that feeling.

The second question I’d suggest would be: Structurally, how might “The Ruby of Sindbâd” introduce a conflict, or underline to readers that one of its elements is a source of conflict for Shahrzad? I can anticipate that the point is not to make her weak, but strong, calculated protagonists are also human, and also have challenges, have complexities, have choices. Where can a choice or challenge that is appropriate for her be incorporated on the page, so she—and the readers—leave the piece with something more than they started with, internally speaking? Less static in the question of an internal conflict?

The third approach I’d suggest: If this is the story you want to tell, but the power relationship as depicted on the page is getting in the way of that and sabotaging it, how might the power relationship be depicted so it tells that story more effectively?

The final one: If the author’s instinct is that no, these are who these two people are, and this is how they’d react, is there a different situation which might show them off to better advantage? Is there something that can change in the situation that lets Il-Arslan do more than sit and die, and Shahrzad do more than hit and leave? Where might they get a chance to act more fully?

I’ll note that these are strategies and approaches rather than specific quotes and definite fixes; that’s because, I think, “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is still caught up in the question of what it wants to say and be. It is already executing quite effectively on the pacing and prose levels, but that argument between text and subtext—the question of Shahrzad’s agency and conflict—is a question with multiple answers: what does it want to execute?

Which means the most important point I’d like to underscore here is that not all these strategies need to be used. They’re diagnostic questions to figure out the possible directions in which a story might evolve. They’re ways to find out which road feels right to take, or whether—as mentioned—one’s attached enough to a story to keep going with it.

No matter what you choose: Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde (Tor.com June, 2019) 

Jewels and their lapidaries and have all but passed into myth.

Jorit, broke and branded a thief, just wants to escape the Far Reaches for something better. Ania, a rumpled librarian, is trying to protect her books from the Pressmen, who value knowledge but none of the humanity that generates it.When they stumble upon a mysterious clock powered by an ancient jewel, they may discover secrets in the past that will change the future forever.

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Gravity Chapter 1 and 2, by Steph C. Smith

This submission is very long—ideally it would have been half the length—but the idea caught my eye and the protagonist’s voice in the first few paragraphs held it. I like the concept of a character who can manipulate gravity. It’s not the usual superpower, and it has interesting ramifications.

Two things stood out for me as I read.

1. Plotting and Structure

The opening is fairly brisk and dives right into the action, though the prose could be tighter. On that, see observation number 2. The second half stops the action for a lengthy session of expository dialogue, in which we get the backstory in detai, though a character who is developed enough to be interesting, but who seems to exist primarily to convey information the protagonist needs before she can move on. Another character shows up in the midst of this; her arrival seems rather random, and it doesn’t seem to tie in with the exposition.

Though the author’s note does not specify, I got the impression that the novel is a sequel and that this chapter is designed to fill in the new reader on the events of the previous volume. Whether or not that impression is accurate, the chapter puts the plot on hold while Jude is filled in on what’s happened since the last time she was conscious. There’s a lot of information, a lot of offstage action, and a lot of people and places and politics and events that the reader has to process before the story moves on.

Conveying the information in dialogue, with character quirks and bits of stage business—cooking, eating, exchanging introductions, stopping for the arrival and departure of a third party—is meant to frame the exposition in active and interesting ways. Dialogue is active, we’re taught in writing classes, and characters talking is a kind of action. It’s alive. It’s people interacting.

A character telling another character all the things that have happened over a period of months, even with the tellee asking questions and getting answers, is a technique I call “offstaging.” Action happens offstage. Characters talk about it onstage. It sets up a barrier between the reader and the action.

If this is a sequel and Jude (as well as the reader coming to the series for the first time) does need to know all of it before she can make the next set of choices that move the plot, there may be other ways to convey the information. In a world in which magic works, she might experience the flashbacks as visions—removing the filter of Abe’s narration. She might actively seek out the different sets of information through some form of scrying, library-trawling, googling. Abe might give her hints and clues which she has to decipher more gradually, which in turn will reduce the number of names and conflicts and events that the reader has to process at this early stage in the narrative.

If this is the first volume of a series, there’s at least a novel’s worth of backstory in Abe’s exposition. It might be conveyed through the narrative, revealed as each piece of information is directly relevant to Jude’s actions and interactions. Breaking up the exposition will help the story to move ahead more quickly, and give Jude more room to reveal her personality, her wants and needs, her history and trauma.

One thing that may help the pacing and give the narrative more room to move is my second observation:

2. Tightening the Prose

The narrative voice gets a good start on signaling Urban Fantasy and establishing Jude as the tough-gal protagonist with a nice turn of wit. The opening action is also a good start. There’s a lot of good potential in the initial setup.

One way to bring that potential even more to the fore is to trim and tuck the prose, make it sharper and clearer, and heighten the tension and suspense through the structure of the sentences. In general, action likes to progress in short, punchy bursts: brief sentences, relatively simple syntax. This doesn’t mean writing in a rapid chop and never slowing down for a longer or more leisurely section of narrative, but there are a few stylistic habits that might be worth rethinking.

“And” splices, for example, connecting separate actions. “But,” “so,” and “then” have the same effect. They weaken the force of the story by stringing actions together rather than letting each one hold its own space.

I swung it at his head, but he dodged, so I flung it instead at the mirror over the sink hard enough to shatter the glass.

Try breaking up the sentence. Remove the conjunctions. Let each action punch on its own—bam, bam, bam. Then at the end, which dribbles off a bit, keep the action going: I flung it at the mirror over the sink. The glass shattered.

Here too, rather than stringing clauses together, try them as separate sentences:

On my way to the door, I slammed my hip against the end of the bed and fell to my hands and knees. The impact made my stomach lurch and I bit my tongue to keep from gagging.

See how removing the and splices changes the way the actions come across. If you keep the first and, try breaking up the second sentence, so that the two separate physical responses take place separately.

Another way to heighten the force of a sentence, particularly in an action scene, is to use active constructions. Gerunds—words that end in ing—slow and soften the action. They dangle off the edge of a sentence, weakening its force. A series of gerunds can slow down the action, particularly in a series of sentences with the same structure.

I took another breath, shaking my head as if it might loosen that memory and let it slip away. I moved my hands to my head, taking some comfort in running my fingers through my hair. It was longer than I remembered, curling past my shoulders.

Breaking up the clauses, again, can make each piece of the action stronger, more assertive. Varying the sentence structure keeps the reader’s eye and mind engaged, providing a little bit of friction to move the story forward. Replacing gerunds with active verbs can further enhance the effect.

When I’m revising my own prose, one thing I watch out for is a tendency to repeat information. I might try several different ways to say the same thing, then in revision pick the one that works the best for the context.

The flip-flops were uncomfortable, and not quiet. The slap of plastic foam on the pavement grated on my already-fried nerves. No doubt anyone in a three-block radius could hear it and tail me, and running in these things was going to result in an instant face-plant, Faerie powers or not.

These three sentences might condense into one, focusing on the details that want to repeat: the noise and the discomfort of her stolen footwear. One clause for the noise, one for the awkwardness, and then an active bit rather than a potential passive: she tries to run in them, they flap noisily, she starts to stumble, she has to slow down and pull herself together.

Sometimes blocking out a scene for my own use means trying different ways to convey my character’s actions and reactions.

My stomach twisted and I caught myself against a building, the fire in my veins extinguished. I kept my gaze on the sidewalk to fight off the visions of the people I’d already broken. The startling ache behind my eyes meant I couldn’t let those memories come back in detail. I’d never been the type of girl who dissolved into tears on the street and this wasn’t the time to start.

Here I might choose one of these sentences to keep, the one that best sums up what she’s doing and feeling. The rest I’d move to my Outtakes file, to save for later.

In draft, too, it can be tempting to insert a full description of a new character, as a sort of note to self.

She took a few steps into the room. She moved like a dancer. She had flawless brown skin and short, curly hair that started light blue at the roots then faded into a more normal black as it reached her ears. A tiny diamond stud twinkled in one nostril.

In revision, I ask myself which particular detail is directly relevant at this particular point. That’s the one I keep. The rest, again, I put aside. It may come in handy later.

Even if it doesn’t, I’ve given myself a fuller picture of who she is and what she looks like. If I’ve chosen the right detail, the reader will pick up the rest.

Jude has a nice strong voice. Tighter prose and sharper focus, along with some rethinking of how to convey the backstory, will make that voice even clearer. Even in this draft I have some sympathy for her predicament, and I’m curious to see how she sets about getting out of it—or, considering the state of her luck, how she manages to dig herself in even deeper.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award May 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.


Perfection by Sarah Kanning

t’s a tremendous challenge to write a science-fiction story under 2000 words: to build a world and people it with characters and develop the structure of a plot. To do it backwards ups the ante even further. I love that this submission tries to do all that, and I think the characters and the basic conflict take up plenty of space. There’s definitely a story here.

I do agree however that the structure needs some rethinking. The straight backwards organization of events starts to feel strained about halfway through.

Maybe it’s me with my linear brain and long familiarity with stories that run in the other direction, though I don’t find I want that to happen here. There’s interest and intrigue, for me, in the unfolding of information, in not knowing everything exactly as it happens chronologically.

At the same time, I think the order of events needs some shaking up. Start with the killing, yes—I like the shock of that—but weave the backstory in through the immediate sequence of events that leads to this conclusion. Maybe play with verb tenses: present for story-present, past for backstory. Mix it up a little bit. Let revelations spark as they become relevant—a flash of memory, connections made as present events or sensory input recalls earlier incidents. The stress of knowing what Hayden was in the beginning, versus what he’s become. Word-echoes, echoes of concepts, as memory and immediate action merge. The prose, the choice of words and the juxtaposition of ideas, might do even more than it currently does to link events and characters.

It’s doable, I think, within the limits of the current word count, though some of that might be recast a little bit, for clarity. Such phrases as

the hacked gash and the darkening contusion precisely centered on the solar plexus

are almost too concise—and at the same time, seem almost redundant. Perhaps just a gash, with hacked left to implication?

And here too,

come manacle and haul me away

feels slightly overcompressed but also overly specific. Do we need to know exactly how he’s bound? Is it enough that he’s hauled away?

The answer could of course be Yes, it has to be this way. And that’s the author’s right and power. Especially when writing very short, every word has its carefully chosen place. Everything comes together into that perfect, single point, which here is the nature and cause of the death that (at least for this draft, and I think possibly for final as well) begins the story and ends the relationship between its main characters.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

The Train Children by Mark Early

One of the qualities I enjoy most in this story is the flow.  One sentence leaves me interested in learning more about something, and the next sentence tells me more about that something.  Transitions are provided where necessary, and words are ordered so that sentences often end with a mention of the very things that will be the focus of the next sentence.  That means one sentence leads to the next, pulling me along.  I very rarely get to the start of a new sentence and feel disoriented, puzzled, or jarred.  Flow is a critically important element of stories and one that is often lacking.

The flow of the opening paragraphs draws me into this story, which then allows the content of those paragraphs to gain my interest.  That content is well chosen.  The first paragraph establishes that Pastor Hemmings is new to this church, which makes me wonder how the congregation will feel about him.  The second paragraph establishes a mystery about the congregation:  there are no children.  The third paragraph adds a second mystery:  the church has a “hard time keeping pastors.”  By that point, I’m very interested and eager to keep reading and learn more.

The story within the story, about the children being killed years ago at the train crossing, is haunting and disturbing.  Once I hear that, my questions from the opening paragraphs are answered, but now, to keep me reading, I have a new question:  Will Pastor Hemmings survive?  The story seems to be promising me a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable (qualities every climax should have) answer to this question.

All of that works well.  One area of the story that I think could be improved is the plot.  The current plot moves in too straightforward, expected a manner to the end.  About halfway through, Pastor Hemmings hears the children playing, and we suspect where the story will go.  Unfortunately, it goes right to that expected end without any twists along the way.  This not only lacks suspense and surprise, it also doesn’t allow the protagonist, Pastor Hemmings, to have any power to affect the outcome.  He’s simply a victim.  In my mind, the promise that the story made me in its third paragraph–to provide a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable answer to the question “Will Pastor Hemmings survive?”–has not been fulfilled.

One way to strengthen the plot would be to cut the last paragraph of the story within the story, the paragraph beginning “Those young ‘uns are looking for something . . .”  Most of this paragraph feels repetitive, and as I read I realize that it tells me the ending:  that the children want someone to take them “wherever it is they’re bound to go.”  At that point, I know Pastor Hemmings is going to end up driving the children, which is indeed what happens.

Cutting that paragraph will leave more mystery.  It’s always hard to know how much information the reader needs to understand the story and feel its impact.  Readers can often provide important feedback on this.  In this case, I feel I know all I need to know before reaching this paragraph.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to build up to the climax.  Right now, we go from the opening with the story within the story (which is exposition, background information) to the climax with only two paragraphs of transition between them.  Instead of going from opening to climax, the story could build suspense and increase our attachment to the pastor as we see him struggling to cope with this situation.  For example, he could hear the faint sound of children’s laughter from his office in the church and close the window.  He could look up an old news article about the accident.  He could talk to the parent of one of the children (Della?), expressing his condolences and trying to gather more information.  He could talk to the friend who assigned him to this church and ask what happened to the previous pastors.  He could visit the children’s graves in the cemetery and pray for them, and something weird and threatening could happen.  This would make the pastor more active in trying to deal with this situation.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to use what you’ve previously established.  The character of Cyrus, a survivor of the train accident that killed the children, is prominent at the beginning and then disappears in the second half.  The second half involves only the ghosts of the children and the pastor.  The children want to relive their accident, and the pastor has no power, so this makes for a predictable situation.  If we bring in Cyrus, suddenly the situation is less predictable.

In the first half, Cyrus seems to be keeping an eye on the pastor.  So when the children finally show up, I’m wondering why Cyrus isn’t showing up to help the pastor.  My suggestion is to have Cyrus die of natural causes before the climax.  Before he dies, we can see him clearly watching/protecting the pastor.  His death could help explain why the children, who haven’t appeared before this point, now appear.  Yet the pastor realizes Cyrus–in his child form–is among them.  They have taken him back and want him to be one of them.  Cyrus may want to help the pastor escape.

In addition, though, the pastor needs some ability to have an impact on events.  He can’t just be a powerless victim.  Perhaps he succeeds at freeing himself from Della and has the opportunity to jump out of the car and leave the children to be hit by the train.  Now he’s faced with an internal conflict and a difficult decision:  he can jump out and save himself, or he can stay with the children and try to help them find peace.  Giving the protagonist a difficult decision to make at the climax can raise excitement, suspense, and emotion.  Perhaps the pastor tosses Cyrus from the car and turns the car onto the tracks right in front of the train, so the train pushes them ahead without crashing into them and destroying them, and they are headed now to some new place, the pattern broken.  The pastor might see Cyrus get up beside the tracks, now facing a new life as a child.  That could be an ending that could feel both surprising and inevitable.  The events in the middle of the story would need to show that the pastor is someone who cares about the congregation and about these children, but also has plans for his retirement and looks forward to finally having time for himself.  This will allow us to feel the pastor’s internal conflict at the climax and to understand the price he is paying (giving up his dreams of retirement) by staying in the car to help the children.

One other area I want to briefly mention is point of view.  The third person limited omniscient POV remains fairly distant from the pastor throughout.  Calling him “Pastor Hemmings” creates distance, since he certainly doesn’t think of himself that way.  Instead, he might think of himself by his first name.  Also, sometimes his feelings are described not as he would experience them but as an external narrator would describe them; for example, “an unfamiliar feeling of trepidation growing in his normally serene spirit.”  I think making us feel closer to the pastor could make the story more involving and emotional.

I enjoy many of the elements in the story.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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