Editor’s Choice Review January 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.

Burning Season by Cherae Clark

“Burning Season” caught my eye this month with its fascinating linguistic worldbuilding: a city where cultural purge is the norm, which isn’t even sure if it believes its own myths anymore—and one we see through a protagonist who has been a collaborator, and has very little to believe in as well.  It’s a story that’s doing some adept, fascinating work, but also feels like it has yet to fully inhabit its concept. So this month, I’d like to discuss why finding the right size for a story matters, and what it means, on a pure craft level, to commit to the stories we’re telling.

“Burning Season” already stands apart just by nature of its subject matter: sociolinguistic speculative elements are a lot more common in science fiction than in fantasy, and while the idea of an ever-colonized city isn’t a new one in fantasy, focusing a story on the ground-level experience of the people who live there—the writing and rewriting of culture and customs that would mean for them, and how it shapes them—is, just by existing, an excellently interesting piece of trope pushback.

As is casting Saman as a collaborator—one who isn’t faking being casual about their relationship with Kiroga or their attitude to politics.  As well as subverting the idea of the vulnerability-free, passionate hero, Saman’s hesitation and flaws and going along to get along are a highly effective way to make Rashid feel real as a colonized city.  Saman’s own internal colonization resonates well with the constant presence of violence in the streets, and combines with the deft use of a few other details—how Saman and the other characters handle that sense of language, code-switching and cross-communicating across a whole spectrum of social language taboos; the history people don’t actually want to talk about; and the way characters are believeably non-fluent in a language—to bring Rashid off the page and make it feel real.  The small touches of ambiguous futures throughout the piece—Borlena’s perhaps-daughter, where Liral is now—and the drumbeat repetition of I don’t know the story combine with that trope pushback to tell readers this isn’t the usual fare.

Though it’s got my attention with what it’s not, I think “Burning Season” could come out much more strongly on the page with what it is.  The author’s mentioned being unsure if this can work as a short piece or needs to be expanded, and I’d argue there’s an intersection of both needs here—as a short piece, it would be more effective trimmed shorter to make sure it delivers a clear and effective narrative, but in terms of plot, “Burning Season” ends just as the story is getting started.

Either way, I’d suggest trimming the piece down as a first move.  Making sure it has the same amount of words as story helps eliminate the feeling of drag that shows up throughout the piece, and will help make that expand-prose-or-contract-plot decision from much firmer ground.

That tightening to get the gaps and air bubbles out is a lens that can be applied in a few ways; the sentence level is the most obvious.  For example, the very first sentence is a good candidate for a quick tightening.  Consider the difference between the current opening line:

“It started with something foolish, as most things like to be known as tragedies usually do.”

–and a tighter, leaner version:

“It started with something foolish, as most tragedies do.”

What’s been taken out is mostly qualifying, hesitation, and hedging. “Most” and “usually” qualify the same Not All Tragedies idea in the same way; there’s no reason to say the things that might maybe be known as tragedies where one word will do—yes, tragedies, that’s what we’re talking about here.

This isn’t a flinch that’s consistent throughout “Burning Season”; the second paragraph, “It was burning season in Rashid. Again,” is a beautifully authoritative sentence, and sets a huge amount of tone and reader expectation in seven little words.  The description of Slaughterhouse is absolutely evocative.  The single gunshot is left on the page like a stain and its aftermath allowed to bloom in a way that has real impact.  Just as I’d suggest finding those moments that are hesitating, repeating themselves, hedging, and clearing them up, I’d suggest finding the moments of clear, confident, evocative prose and making sure they have the space to shine.

On a more macro level, I’d suggest looking at every interaction and scene and seeing how it’s either building the argument or taking the narrative forward—and trimming if it’s not working to a goal.  For example, I’d suggest shortening the opening interaction with Borlena.  As an establishing shot, the initial paragraphs do the trick quite nicely of telling us what the omniloquists are and do; what the conversation with Borlena seems to underline most, right now, is a roguish, Bogartesque, I-stick-my-neck-out-for-nobody protagonist.  That’s an archetype that’s worn enough around the edges that it’s sticking out harshly against the rather innovative worldbuilding: it feels as if it’s gotten less quality thought than the world itself.

As a side note, there are a few other aspects of “Burning Season” that could perhaps use more evidence on the page of careful thought.  The explanation of the city layout is the most notable example, which—forgive me—reminds me a bit of a game of SimCity (industrial zone right up next to residential zone!), and created some disconnect from the story for this reader: With the wonderful linguistic layering of Rashid telling me this is not what conquest looks like and Saman’s messy history telling me this is not what living through war looks like, having a very basic approach to what city planning looks like grates against the sense of realism that the story’s already established.  Every other aspect of this piece has embraced complexity; when a craft element doesn’t, “Burning Season” falls down for me as a reader.

Which brings me back to the author’s question: To refine as a workable short story, or to expand “Burning Season” into something larger?

Ultimately, I think that decision lies in the answer to a simple question—one that works best when asked after refining a piece into its most effective shape.  What is “Burning Season” meant to get across, and in short story format, is it getting that across as well as it could?

While stories evolve on the page—and that’s a good thing!—we start off a piece with something we want to communicate.  Writing is, always, at its heart, communication.  When considering whether to expand or contract a piece, the most useful way of reframing that question is to ask which toolset—short story, novella, or more—will get that crucial something across to readers in the most effective way.

Ultimately, everything we work with is a tool; what we—and our work—have to say for ourselves is what makes our stories come alive.  So I’d advise asking what “Burning Season” has to say with its complexity and ambiguity—without flinching, without shorthands, being utterly itself—and picking the form that will make it the clearest version of itself.

Best of luck!

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

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The “aliens have landed” is an old tired trope. But this month, try a new twist.

Imagine these aliens are refugees and can’t go home again. How do the people in your fictional world react to these strangers?

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

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


Publication News

Jodi Meadows has a new fantasy trilogy in the works, and the first book will be released September of 2017. Watch for Before She Ignites (Fallen Isles Trilogy #1).

JJ Roth wrote to say: “My dark fiction flash piece, “Rumpelstiltskins,” appeared in the inaugural issue of Unnerving Magazine in December. I also sold an original piece, “All of the Cuddles With None of the Pain,” to Podcastle, publication date to be determined.”

Josh Vogt revealed the cover for the third in his Cleaners series. The Dustpan Cometh will be released in March of 2017. You can see the cover here.

Fran Wilde shared the cover reveal of the third book in her Bone Universe series. You can see the cover for Horizon (coming in September 2017) 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.

[ December 2016] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: William Delman
Submission: Beachcombing (REVISION) by Jennifer K. Oliver
Submitted by: Jennifer K. Oliver

Reviewer: Allison Kovacs
Submission: The Awakening – Chapter 03 & 04 – NaNoWriMo by Owen G. Richards
Submitted by: Owen G. Richards

Reviewer: Gregor Hartmann
Submission: Untitled Japan Strange Beast Type Thing Part 2 by David Rees-Thomas
Submitted by: David Rees-Thomas

Editor’s Choice Review December 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.

Marc Holiday And The Dragon’s Eye- Chapter Eleven -You Can Run But You Can’t Hide From Time by Mark Reeder

It’s interesting coming into a novel and a series near the end. Characters who would be old friends to readers of the whole series are strangers. I’ll miss references that would resonate to readers familiar with the whole story, and also miss repetitions and echoes that, if I were editing the entire series, I might flag with, “Do we need to see this again?” At the same time, I get the flavor of the story, and a sense of the characters. It’s a taste of the larger dish.

The summary tells me of a dense and complex story with a large cast of characters and a great deal of adventure both triumphant and tragic. I think bits got elided or condensed—I’m not quite clear on whose body is being returned to whose parents, for example. Not an uncommon issue with a big, expansive story and a short, concise summary. If the author were writing a synopsis for submission, this would want a bit of clarification.

The actual chapter caught my eye because of the questions asked about the draft. I like clear, detailed questions, and specific needs and wants from authors. They’re helpful to the editor coming in cold and pondering a small portion of a large work.

The questions point me toward the author’s intentions in writing the chapter. Words that jumped out at me were telling/showing, dialogue, vivid/energetic, and believable. Good aims and goals for any story, but especially for YA/MG, for which distinctive voice and clear, fast-moving storytelling are definite assets.

The chapter consists primarily of characters talking to one another about events that have happened or will happen elsewhere. There’s movement and action but it’s a bit buried in dialogue, until the final scene, when Marc gets pulled away into the (portentously italicized) Arch of Time. That’s the chapter I find myself wanting to read. What’s here seems mostly to be transitional. Major things have happened and will happen. Here in the middle, characters are telling each other about the past and setting up for the future.

I do get a sense of how the characters relate to one another, what they are to each other—longtime friends and comrades in arms, so to speak. The scene blocking in the beginning is a bit out of order: we see where Larry and Tycho are rather late in the scene, and the storm, which turns out to be important, is also introduced late, which undercuts its significance, at least for me as a reader; I might be missing some setup in the previous chapter.

Scene blocking is important. Making sure the reader gets the sense of who, what, where, when, etc., so that she can visualize the scene as it unfolds, and so that she can get a sense of which details are essential to move the plot forward. If she has to backtrack while she reads, she loses momentum, and so, accordingly, does the story.

It’s an easy fix in revision, but definitely something to keep in mind. I also felt a distinct difference between the first scene and the scenes that followed—almost as if they belonged to a different story. This may be a thing; it may be how the story tells itself in the series. Here it felt like a change in voice, and a change in the way the story is being told.

The leading questions about Dr. Jake have an air of “As you know, Bob” about them. I found myself wondering why these questions are being asked here, and why, if they’re crucial to the story, Dr. Jake isn’t there to ask them himself. If they’re not crucial, do they need to be here? There’s quite a bit happening, and quite a bit about to happen. Do these extra details provide essential information for the next round of action?

I felt too that the dialogue went on a bit. I like Larry’s writer-frantic-ness, and the idea that he’s translating their experiences into fiction. It’s very meta. But maybe a little less-is-more would make the scene move faster and the plot advance more quickly (and smoothly) toward the next scene.

My question as a cold reader, too, would be: Is there a scene like this every time they stop for a breather in between time-zips? After five volumes, is this information already known to all the characters? If so, is it necessary again here? Is there a more concise way to get key, new information across, while reminding readers of essential background?

In the second scene I had a similar reaction. Do we need to know Marc’s hair color by this point? If it changes every time he changes the past, that might be worth a quick pointer. Otherwise, in terms of narrative economy, we probably don’t need the detail at this particular point. We may not need the detail about his shirt, either, unless it’s significant to the plot (different school colors in different timelines?).

And again, with Tycho, have they wondered about his intelligence earlier? If so, is it crucial to the plot right here, to go over it again? If not, why does it dawn on them now in particular? Will we be getting a story development within the next handful of scenes, in which Tycho’s intelligence becomes a plot-mover?

Fire hydrants by the way are a pretty old-fashioned joke for a modern kid to make. Is this significant to Larry’s history and character?

As they’re running with Larry, I think the dialogue could be pruned and the jokes toned down a bit. They’re yukking and expositioning when they might be more focused on getting where they need to go, and I’m missing the sense of danger and urgency. There’s lots of telling, lots of “we know X but you don’t so we’ll tell you all about it while we’re running.” That stretches my belief a bit, since mostly when people are hurrying to get somewhere, they’re focused on that rather than on relaying information.

Also, breathing.

Does the reader of the whole series need the whole summary, or can a quick handful of lines do the job? “They filled Larry in while they ran, taking turns to breathe and talk,” or something similar. And a highlight or two to give the proper flavor of the conversation.

Overall I like the energy, love the details of the story even where, as a cold reader, I found them confusing—maybe a reader of the whole would not need quite so much summary and exposition—and I do find the characters lively and bouncy, though as I’ve said, some trimming and pruning would help keep the scenes and characters moving. Pare down, focus on essential details; if it’s worth telling what someone said offstage, maybe it’s worth showing the scene in which that character speaks.

But as I’ve noted, that the cold reader observing what she sees. Some of these issues may be resolved elsewhere, and there may not be a particular need to fix them here. It’s all about how the parts fit into the whole.

–Judith Tarr

On The Shelves

The Liberation (The Alchemy Wars) by Ian Tregillis (Orbit, December 2016)ians-new-book

I am the mechanical they named Jax. My kind was built to serve humankind, duty-bound to fulfil their every whim. But now our bonds are breaking, and my brothers and sisters are awakening.Our time has come. A new age is dawning.

Set in a world that might have been, of mechanical men and alchemical dreams, this is the third and final novel in a stunning series of revolution by Ian Tregillis, confirming his place as one of the most original new voices in speculative fiction.