Member News Of Note

The finalists for the 2020 Locus awards have been announced. OWW alumni continue to be recognized for excellence and as some of the best in the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Huge congratulations to all of you and good luck!

  • Best Science Fiction Novel
  • Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
  • Best Novella
  • A Time To Reap by Elizabeth Bear
  • Best Novelette
  • Erase, Erase, Erase by Elizabeth Bear
  • Emergency Skin–N.K. Jemisin
  • Best Short Story
  • Lest We Forget by Elizabeth Bear
  • A Catalogue Of Storms by Fran Wilde
  • Best Collection
  • Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Alliette de Bodard
  • Best Editor
  • Charles Coleman Finlay

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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.

Forged By Death by Jennifer Dawson

This chapter features some of my favorite elements: books and magic, and portals (or rifts). There’s a bit of a sendup of the usual pattern, with the parents who live a life of adventure and the daughter who doesn’t want adventures. She just wants to go to university and immerse herself in All the Books. I can relate to that.

I do get the sense that Nacie is going to be forced into having adventures, and (in light of the title) that there is tragedy ahead. Her relationship with her parents is so sweet that it begs for a reversal. Her life is just about perfect. That’s always a bad sign.

While it’s important to establish that Nacie has had an idyllic if hard-working childhood, it might actually make the effect stronger to tone down the sweetness. Maybe give the parents a bit more of an edge and a bit less chuckling and smiling and teasing. Sharpen the hint of conflict with her father, let us see how life has taught him to be wary. Maybe he overprotects his daughter a little, as the mother pushes her studies just a bit too hard.

Maybe the daughter is a touch more rebellious, a touch less content. She might accept that she has to wait to go to university, but she might also chafe at it, wish she could be older now, could have it now. And maybe there’s a bit of a chill down her spine, a sense that this can’t last, that one of these trips, they won’t come back. If they’re the only ones who can cross the rift, if no one else can do it, who can find them if they’re lost? How will anyone be able to follow them? Which leads to another question that’s probably answered later on in the story: If it’s only the two of them, did Nacie inherit the ability? Does she know how it works, even if she hasn’t done it herself?

Nacie in fact feels younger than sixteen. Her study of arithmetic makes me think elementary or middle school. By sixteen, which is a year or two from college, students in the US are studying more advanced mathematics, algebra and even calculus. The way she interacts with her parents, and the reference to the long wait, makes me think she’s a younger teen or even a preteen. Still old enough to stay alone with her schoolwork in the heavily warded house, but not so old that she’s almost ready to take her studies to the next level.

My other thought was that her elven blood might mean she’s slower to mature than a full human, and that’s why she seems so young and is still so many years away from university. If that’s the case, a line or two would make it clear. Might she fuss a little bit about it, that humans her age are almost ready, but she has to wait?

There are plenty of reasons to read on, and plenty of questions to be answered. I’ll be interested to see how Nacie grows and changes in revision, and where her story takes her.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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.

Infrasound by Matthew Davidson

I’m intrigued by the concept here: both science fiction and horror. This opening sequence says “hard SF” to me, with its mission-control setting and its focus on the sound coming out of space. But I do keep in mind the gothic-horror roots of the Alien franchise, not to mention the beloved trope, It Came From Outer Space. There’s a definite trend toward horror toward the end, as the sound overwhelms the characters and their setting.

The author’s note asks about pacing. That’s an important element of any story, regardless of genre. Here, with action that builds up to a crescendo of fear and dread, the pacing would tend to be rapid and escalating.

There are a few tricks of craft that can help to focus the narrative and, as a result, sharpen the reader’s sense of what’s going on.

1. Frame the scene clearly and coherently.

Make sure the setting is clearly defined and the characters move consistently within it. For example I’m not entirely sure whether David and the party are in the same room, or if he’s in mission control and the party is happening remotely via screen or hologram. I’m also not clear about why the sommelier is giving the speech. There’s some explanation about the Nobel laureate avoiding doing it, but I’m not getting the logic of having a wine steward take over the job. Would it make more sense if he were a hired master of ceremonies, someone who does this kind of thing for a living?

2. Short, concise, focused paragraphs

It’s amazing how much difference it can make to keep the paragraphs short and keep each one focused on a particular action or viewpoint. Try breaking up the paragraphs, keeping them to three sentences or so. See how that changes the way the narrative moves.

Trim the repetition, too, and notice how often words and phrases echo in consecutive or adjacent sentences. See what happens if these echoes go away, either by choosing different words or phrases, or by deleting the repetitions altogether.

3. Active voice

Like short paragraphs and concise sentences, active voice makes a significant difference to the pacing. Try shifting all the verbs to active, and getting rid of multi-word verb constructions. Though I have no personal problem with the word was, or the verb to be in general, try eliminating it as much as possible, and make sure every verb has a subject. Then see what needs to go back in. The same applies to gerunds—words ending in –ing—and clauses that connect with while and as. Break them up, make each one its own, short, active unit. And again, see what that does to the speed of the narrative.

4. Specificity

The more focused the narrative is, the more coherent it tends to be. One way to do this is to be specific. Instead of generic people acting or reacting, focus on one or two. Let us see what these particular people do and see and say. We’ll still get the sense that we’re in a room full of people, but we’ll experience the action more directly and immediately.

5. Exposition: To Be or Not to Be?

Science fiction loves its exposition, and part of worldbuilding is making sure the reader knows what’s going on and where and how. The trick is to know when to stop and explain, and when to keep things moving. Fast pacing means minimal exposition. Chunks of explanation act like speed bumps. The questions to ask are: Is this information absolutely necessary here? Does the reader need to know it right here and now in order to understand what is going on? If the answer is yes, how much information do they need at this point? How much is directly relevant to what’s happening? Can I wait to fill in the rest later, or leave it to the reader’s imagination?

This applies to both narrative exposition and dialogue. Dialogue especially is tricky because it may seem more active and direct and immediate to have a character Explain Things. It’s still exposition, and the story is still on pause. It may actually work better to toss in a line or two of exposition and then move on. The key here as elsewhere is to keep it short and keep it relevant. That helps to keep the story moving. And movement, of course, is what pacing is.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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.

 

Still There by Tracey V. Brown

While reading the opening of this novel, I alternate between feeling intrigued and feeling locked out. The moment when my excitement kicks in is with “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” At that point, I feel I finally have a solid sense of what’s going on. They’re going to try to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate, or at least pretend to try. My feeling of excited understanding continues and builds with “Just like that horror film online campaign,” which makes me happy because I get the reference to The Blair Witch Project and now feel even more solid in my understanding and pleased because I really liked The Blair Witch Project and anticipate I will like this, too. It’s like this story was in a mystery prize bag that was handed to me, and I couldn’t get it open for a while to see what sort of prize was inside. When I finally get it open, I’m glad that I took the effort.

The next couple of paragraphs get me pretty much fully up to speed, and then the story can move ahead by revealing the path. So that second half of the second scene gets me involved and makes me want to keep reading. Prior to that, I could have stopped at any time. For me, the first scene has too much mystery and not enough to engage me. Andy is making a coffin. While I don’t know anything about making coffins, it seems odd that he’s making a tiny, final shave off a piece before bringing the pieces together. How does he know they will fit, and how can he know one tiny shave is necessary? So while I’m not sure, I feel something is strange about his process, which is mystery #1. Ruth enters with “colourful paper stuff.” I don’t know what this is or how to picture it, so this is mystery #2. The word stuff at first makes me think of confetti. Later, she “shook out three or four rolls of paper in bright colours.” I guess this is the same as the “stuff,” but it doesn’t sound the same. If they are rolls, it would be helpful to use that word rather than “stuff” the first time the paper is mentioned.

I’m now puzzled by how she can shake out a roll. I end up picturing her with rolls of colored toilet paper, and she’s holding onto the end and dropping the roll, so it unrolls across the floor. And she does this multiple times with multiple rolls. I’m sure this isn’t what you mean, but as I try to figure out what you do mean, the only other images I can come up with are rolls of paper towels or rolls of crepe paper. I have no idea why she’s shaking them out. She then says she’ll make a banner out of the paper. But a banner is generally made of a single, large sheet of sheet of material. I try to make the toilet paper into a banner in my head, but it doesn’t work. I try to change the image in my head so that there’s just one large roll, but it still doesn’t make sense to me that she would shake it out and let it roll over the dirty barn floor. Why? And why did she bring the paper here and why is she telling Andy about it? She’s not asking him to help with the banner.

Then there’s the question of who the banner is for. It seems to be for someone they both fear, since they’ll speak about that person only obliquely. My guess is that the identity of this person is the mystery you want to raise in our minds. The problem is that I’m so preoccupied trying to figure out the paper, the person has little impact. I notice that there’s a person that they seem to fear, but it just blends in with all the other mystery. I don’t think you want me to pay as much or more attention to the paper than I do to the person. If that’s true, you need to limit the mystery to the things you want to be mysterious and make everything around those things super clear. Then there’s mystery #3, about how Ruth is going to kill her grandfather by aligning his bed with the floorboards. I wonder for a while if this is some obscure mythological method of killing vampires, like arithmomania. But I couldn’t find anything about it on the Internet.

So Ruth wants to kill her grandfather and may use this strange method either because she has strange powers to kill in this way or because her grandfather is strange and requires a strange method to kill him. Either way, I’m pretty confused and am feeling overwhelmed with mysteries. The houseleek is mystery #4. Ruth’s offer to protect his house from lightning using houseleek frightens Andy, for some reason. After working at it for a while, I see two mysteries within this one. First, “using” the houseleek seems to involve some danger. I don’t know what that danger is. Second, going into the woods to get the houseleek involves another danger. Mystery #5 is what Andy knows that Ruth doesn’t know. He thinks she will “Live and learn.” But I don’t know what she’ll learn. It seems to be some sort of burden, because Andy thinks maybe it’s “cruel to keep on.” I’m really not sure if this burden is the same thing that Andy knows but Ruth doesn’t know, because Ruth does seem to know about this thing. So I’m not even sure if this is one mystery or two separate ones.

Mystery #6 is what this saying means: “Family blood is different from family took.” Mystery #7 is what this means: “he might have been tempted to say the words that went with the action.” I’m not sure what the action is; his hand is touching the coffin lid, but that seems more his position (already completed) rather than his action. And I don’t know what words go with touching a coffin lid, why he’s tempted to say them, and why he thinks he shouldn’t. There are additional smaller mysteries. The mention of a plane that “murmured past.” Why Ruth carried these papers into the barn and shook them out. Why she’s offering Andy the houseleek repeatedly. She doesn’t seem to even like him. And he doesn’t seem very friendly to her.

The scene overwhelms me with unknowns. There are too many mysteries, too much unclear, too much withheld, and too much not vividly shown. That means none of the mysteries carries much impact. I’m just kind of lost in a swirl of confusion, occasionally glimpsing something that could be interesting if it wasn’t swept away by other things. I think the scene would be much stronger if you focused it around a single mystery–for example, who lives in the woods. That seems to be the one that has the biggest impact on Andy, and he’s the POV character, so it seems the most important. If you make everything around the mystery vivid and clear, it will create the perfect setting to highlight your fascinating mystery, like a velvet cloth on which rests a glittering diamond.

I don’t know everything that happens in the novel, but if you must introduce other mysteries, they could come in other scenes. Generally, though, readers need focus. Seven mysteries are too many to focus on. One mystery, beautifully presented and developed, can draw us in. The second scene is focused on the mystery of where the trail is, and that works pretty well. The one area of the second scene that I want to discuss is the use of “As you know, Bob” (AYKB) dialogue. This type of dialogue occurs when one character tells another things they both know. This is usually a problem because people generally don’t speak this way. If the two of us both know that bananas are a fruit, it’s unlikely that I’ll say to you, “Bananas are a fruit.” All the dialogue that reveals what the characters are doing, all the dialogue that gets me excited, is “As you know, Bob” dialogue. While I’m very glad to receive this information, the method of providing the information undermines the characters. It also seems odd because the novel up to this point has bent over backwards to withhold information, to have the characters speak obtusely, and to leave readers struggling to figure things out. This explanatory AYKB dialogue then seems forced by the author, who has decided to let the reader know what the story is about.

My suggestion is to try to even out your level of mystery/explanation, so we don’t have some scenes that overwhelm us with mystery and others that force the characters to explain themselves. In the case of AYKB dialogue, often a good way is to fix it is to have the characters, rather than stating facts they all know, express opinions about the facts. The story does this a few times, as with the line I quoted earlier: “No one’s saying we’re actually going to ‘solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.'” This would be an AYKB if she’d said, “We’re not actually going to solve the mystery of Redfers’s fate.” I would think they all know this. But instead she’s giving an opinion about the fact. The AYKB dialogue comes out after that, when Nadine says, “That’s the plan,” which they all know, and when Lennie says, “My Edgar Redfers existed, and he really did disappear in the summer of 1909 while he was researching superstitions.” Lennie might instead say, “Once we show people that Edgar Redfers really existed, and he really disappeared in the summer of 1909 while researching superstitions, they’re going to be completely sucked in.”

The situation you reveal definitely draws me in and makes me want to find out how Lennie and company will fare in their investigation. I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Publication News

Karen L. Kobylarz has great news to share: “My story “As Day Follows Night,” an Editor’s Choice in June 2018, was published in the March 2020 issue of Eldritch Science. It also won first place in the 2019 N3F Short Story Contest. Thank you to everyone who reviewed this story in its many incarnations.”

Publication News

Kate Ellis wrote to say: “I just wanted to let you know that my story “In-Flight Damage” will appear in a future issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I am extremely grateful for the feedback
it received on this site.”

Congratulations on the pro sale, Kate!

Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, 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 Pistoleer Chapter 2 by Shawn Farien

Overall I like this chapter very much. It has a solid feel in terms of characterization and plotting, and the pacing moves along nicely. It keeps my interest as I read, and makes me want to read on to the next chapter.

I would recommend a thorough and careful copyedit and line edit in the final stages of the revision, with an eye toward clarity. Make sure the text says what it wants to mean, and that the meaning is clear. For this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about two more general things. One has to do with craft. The other is a more or less personal observation, but it might be worth pondering for this and future projects.

One thing we’re taught when we’re writing dialogue is to make sure the dialogue is properly framed and set. Long passages of pure back-and-forth can be quite effective if the voices are distinct and the flow of the conversation clear. Mostly however, what characters do around what they say, that is, the stage business, can greatly enhance the dialogue.

As with everything else about the writer’s craft, it’s all about balance. Too little stage business and the dialogue can come across as “floating heads:” characters drifting in space, speaking without physical or emotional context. On the other hand, too much can seem overly busy, and distract from what the characters are saying and feeling.

I get some of that sense here. There’s a tendency toward overspecificity, to detail exactly what a character is doing, right down to how many bites she takes from her sandwich, and when and where she takes each one. The fact that she is eating, and how she eats, is important to the plot, as is Liam’s observation of it and his thoughts about what it means. After the first repetition or two or three, the sandwich starts to take over, and the conversation recedes into the background.

It’s a matter of balance. Of providing just enough detail to convey the mood and tone and range of information that the author wants to convey, but no more—if no less. In draft, it can all go in, and repeat as often as it needs to. In revision, the pruning shears come out. Time to pare away the excess and leave what’s essential. Tighten the prose, trim the wordiness, and reduce repetition to a few indispensable bits.

My other comment is more a personal one, but it’s also related to changes in how writers write and readers read in this age of diversity and representation. I notice that the world of the chapter is exclusively male, except for a single female. That female is a victim and a rescuee. Everyone else around her is either attacker or rescuer, and they’re all male.

Is this intentional? Will the gender balance right itself later on the novel, with more female (or nonbinary) characters who function as, well, just people? I ask because often writers fall into accepted cultural patterns, and one persistent pattern is that every major character in a work of fiction (either written or filmed) is male except for one token female. The ratio generally is the one here: three males to one female.

If there’s intent and purpose in it, and the rest of the novel will unfold the how and why, that’s great. I’ll look forward to seeing it. But if not, maybe it’s worth some thinking and possible rethinking. Does every speaking character but one have to be male? Does the victim have to be female? What would happen if this were shaken up, if there were an equal balance of genders, a straight one for one—and even perhaps, here or in a future novel, more than the usual two?

It can be a bit uncomfortable to play with assumptions in this way, but it can make for a stronger story, with a broader range of characters. At the very least, it paints a more accurate picture of the actual population. And it gives female characters more to do and say and be.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award May 2020, 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 Ambassador  by William Das

The Ambassador” caught my eye this month by offering a quieter, more nuanced take on the political divide dystopian: a close-in look at the impacts of a wider science-fictional future. While its worldbuilding illustrates and extrapolates a highly partisan American future, it doesn’t quite hang together yet when examined up close. So this month, I’d like to discuss the balance between internal science-fictional cohesion and allegory, and making a piece of fiction work as both.

“The Ambassador” quickly sets out a rich world that feels nonetheless personal, and takes pains to establish the individual strains Adam and Sandra are living under (though Liam is much less carefully drawn, and I think a few more details about his own motivations early on would balance out that sense of wobble in his character). The prose works very well here; it’s clean, engaging, and accessible, and drew me in with a sprinkling of solid details. It’s also capable of rising into the poetic to underscore an emotional or significant moment—the image of two ships slowly ripping each other apart is a powerful one, and keeping that metaphoric language in reserve so it could highlight the thematic climax of the piece was a smart, effective choice. There is no mistaking what the most important sentence of this story is.

There’s a lot of work being done in inference and implication, and the brand names, the ad content, the filtering of how the same news stories are reported by differently aligned outlets are all feeding back into the central thematic concern: political symbolism overtaking the personal, partisanship as identity, and a world organized around taking sides. The worldbuilding supports the theme and plot very well: no detail is wasted. “The Ambassador” is clear about what it’s addressing through allegory, stays on point, and doesn’t flatten its characters overmuch while doing it. This still feels like a story in and of itself.

It’s when I view the world of “The Ambassador” exclusively as a constructed science-fictional society—not as allegory—that it wrinkles and decoheres.

The major worldbuilding bobbles in “The Ambassador” for me starts around the question of loss of membership. While the parallel to health insurance networks and credit scores is visible, Sandra’s out-of-network dilemma doesn’t quite fit the worldbuilding already established here. Patriot Network Services—like Justice Network later on—seems to be a closed, binary-thinking ecology. I’m left wondering why they would even offer the counter-aligned options, but still warn people about consequences when they chose to use it instead of just applying them, gotcha!-style.

Systems are designed by people for a purpose, and the uneven application of consequences here leaves me unsure what behaviours the networks are trying to produce or reinforce, what emphasis they put on actual ideological purity, and how they deal with perceived traitors.

There’s also a significant gap between what people say in “The Ambassador” and what the actual organization of this world tells us. It’s ostensibly an entrenched cultural war, polarized enough to have separate towns and economies after riots forty years ago, but is somehow still one nation, with one president, and the people who hate those policies are leaving peaceably under that person?

That contradiction between rhetoric and action extends to characterization. Everyone in “The Ambassador”, barring Liam, is significantly more flexible than they let on, or than their society seems to want them to be. Sandra has a lot of grey areas and exceptions in her politics; she talks the talk, but she bought those Nike shoes. The staff at Betty’s Garden Centre seem reluctant, even as they turn Adam down, and ultimately they take that cash.

The disconnects reach down to the town names. Friedan and Schlafly are clear references to me and they communicate in terms of allegory, but they’re a little dated politically for what they’re representing here—would people whose schism was forty years ago, ostensibly in our present, have chosen those as their symbols? Why?

The result for me is an oddly soft dystopia: one where the strings are quite visible and you get enough warnings to not have to really worry; where people had riots, tore apart families and societies, and live apart, but somehow now are reserved enough to apply all kinds of moral brakes. Where there’s an entire other system for working around the rules and the consequences are never quite brutal, just expensive and embarrassing.

While it takes enough brutality out of the situation to make “The Ambassador” feel like safer, warmer reading, once the allegory is stripped away, it also makes this world feel like it could be more strongly thought through.

So what I’d suggest for polishing “The Ambassador” up is looking at everything in it with that streak of literalism: if this was saying nothing at all about the present day and was just this other world, these people’s conflicts and choices, would each element of the story make sense and flow into the next? Would a world with these rules and habits function as a world? This can be tricky adjustment, making one set of actions work on two different levels, the literal and the allegorical. But it’s the kind of work that makes a politically allegorical story feel not just like advertising, but like story: satisfying, heartfelt, thoughtful.

My second major suggestion would be to provide a little more support through the middle of “The Ambassador” for the subthread with Adam’s father. It’s supposed to be the closing image—the closing choice—of “The Ambassador”: Adam makes a choice about reaching out. However, I’m not feeling that decision is supported by the rest of the piece: I don’t see, in this draft, why the altercation between Liam and Sandra is enough to make him choose against his father—what it has to do with his father and that strained relationship. I’m fairly certain this thought is lurking in the subtext right now: I think there’s room to strengthen the impact of that ending, though, by making the connections a little clearer, and Adam’s thoughts about his father more consistently present.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, 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.

That Look In Her Eyes by Jim Racanelli

I start reading with mild interest.  Most of us have probably read stories or seen movies in which the spirit of someone who has died calls a living loved one on the phone.  So when James receives a call from his dead father, I’m thinking it’s somewhat familiar territory, though handled nicely.  I grow more interested when James calls his sister but instead reaches his brother-in-law, Bobby, who seems to expect the call.  I fall in love with this story at the line, “You were driving home last March,” when I realize James, too, is a spirit calling a loved one.  The plot twist is delightful.  I feel excited anticipation about what is to come (hoping for yet another plot twist–could Bobby also be a ghost?) and really enjoy the absurdity when James tries to prove he can’t be a ghost by arguing, “a ghost can’t pick up the phone and call another ghost.  That doesn’t even make sense.”

The story also does a nice job of using text from the first part of the story to create subtext later in the story.  After James talks to his dead father, he worries about the possibility that his father might show up at the house.  Later, when James talks to Bobby, and James decides he should go over to Bobby’s house, Bobby does everything he can to deter James from going over.  We recognize the parallels to the first situation and are able to deduce what is in Bobby’s mind.  That works very nicely.

While I really enjoy all that, some areas of the story don’t work as well as they might.

The story doesn’t seem unified.  For me, the first part of the story, in which James talks to his dead father, shows us that the father is a relentless complainer and is still stuck in that behavior after death.  We also see that James is relentless–relentlessly angry, I think, though that could be shown more clearly–and has trouble taking responsibility and apologizing.  The theme seems to be that people are stuck with their personalities and behaviors and have a hard time escaping those.  This doesn’t quite seem to fit with James, who had such a heated argument with his father that his father had a heart attack and died.  Yet the James we see in the story seems able to stay fairly calm when on the phone with his father now.  James does not seem stuck in his behaviors.  When talking to Bobby, he doesn’t seem angry.  So I don’t get a consistent sense of his personality; another way of saying it is that he seems to have changed since his father was alive.

The climax centers around the placing of blame, as James remembers being in the car accident with his wife, Jo, and Jo giving him an accusatory look as she dies.  James doesn’t actually seem to be to blame.  A drunk driver T-boned their car.  Jo seems trapped in blaming James, unable to get past that moment and rescind the blame.  This is very believable territory for me.  Years ago, my husband made me aware that I tended to blame him for everything, and once I realized that I did, indeed, do that, I was horrified and I stopped.  Spouses and family members can definitely fall into the blame game, and that game can last a lifetime–or perhaps, even longer.  So that section rings very true to me, yet it doesn’t seem to strongly connect to the rest of the story.

Let’s look at some other parts of the story in which the issue of the placement of blame arises.  James knows he’s at least partially responsible for his father’s death, though this doesn’t seem to weigh on him and he never apologizes.  Since the father doesn’t know he’s dead, he doesn’t blame James.  So the issue is touched on but not really explored.

One more situation involving transgression and blame involves Fran, James’s sister, who blames herself for the deaths of James and Jo, and Bobby, who believes he is actually the one to blame for their deaths.  Since Fran and Bobby aren’t central to the story, these aren’t adding much.  And blaming oneself is different from blaming someone else.

I think you could adjust these elements of transgression and blame to focus them around a single theme and unify the story.  If Jo blames James, perhaps James blames his father.  In the story, James implies the father is to blame for the breakup of their family, though it doesn’t seem to bother him.  Maybe it does bother him.  Maybe his mother is unhappy and alone, or died unhappy and alone.  Or maybe James blames his father for making James into a stubborn, relentless person.  In this sort of situation, perhaps the person who is being blamed can’t find rest after death, knowing someone is condemning him, and the person placing the blame also can’t find rest, feeling unsatisfied.  The person feeling blamed makes the phone call, searching for forgiveness, though he may not realize it.  In that case, maybe Fran blames James, so James keeps trying to call Fran but gets Bobby instead.  And when James goes upstairs to wake Jo, perhaps he finds Jo calling the wife of the drunk driver, who blames Jo for her husband’s death.  Or perhaps Jo is calling James’s father, who blames her for stopping James from becoming a lawyer.

I think with some changes like this, the story’s exploration of the horrific web of blame that can swallow up a family can be more focused and unified, and can carry more emotion and power.

Another area I’d like to discuss is James’s reaction when Bobby tells him that he died in a car accident.  For me, James’s reaction rings false.  He doesn’t seem to react to many things Bobby says; the first-person perspective fades away from the story, leaving us primarily with dialogue.  When Bobby tells James that James was in an accident, James seems to ignore that information.  If he was tuning Bobby out, I might understand that, but later he reacts to what Bobby says, replying, “Sounds like it should have been in my eulogy.”  Why would James say this when he thinks he’s alive?  He certainly wouldn’t use that tense.  He might say, “Sounds like it should be in my eulogy,” though even that response wouldn’t make sense to me.  A page later, James suggests that Bobby was having a bad dream when he called.  That reaction comes far too late, if that’s how James is explaining this to himself.  Later still, James has a deep insight into Bobby’s feelings, thinking “it’s like he’s at the bottom of a deep pit,” etc.  James has seemed oblivious to much of what Bobby has said, and now he seems deeply involved in the conversation.  It feels like James’s reactions are being controlled by the author, not that this is how James would really react.  That section undermined the character for me.

Finally, the opening section, up until James calls Bobby, seems a bit talky, which is a common problem with first person.  I think you could cut that down about 10% and tighten the story.

I hope these comments are helpful.  I enjoy the story and the themes you explore.

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

Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, 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.

Disingenious by Michael Eric Snyder

The action in this chapter moves along briskly. It’s clear what’s happening, and the line of the plot is straightforward, even with the flashback to the conversation with Sincerity. As a reader I have a solid picture of the protagonist—what he looks like, how he thinks, as well as who he is.

That’s all good work, and bodes well for the structure of the novel as a whole. It starts off with a literal bang and moves on from there.

What I would like to do for this Editor’s Choice is talk about the prose. I tend to advise authors not to worry about the word-by-word or the line-by-line while they’re still putting up the scaffolding of the plot. The important thing is to get the scenes blocked out and the characters moving within them.

How they do that is entirely up to the author’s individual process. Every writer has their own way of getting into the project. Some sketch sparingly and fill in later. Others throw it all in, try different ways of saying things, pile on the details as they come, then when it’s time to revise, go in with the pruning shears and cut away the undergrowth to show the structure of the story.

That’s what I see happening here. It’s a classic example of “kitchen-sink” drafting. There’s nothing wrong with it at all—as I like to say, “There is no wrong way to write a draft.” When it comes time for the line edits however, I have a few suggestions.

1. Overspecificity

One characteristic of kitchen-sink drafting is that the author puts everything in. They’re blocking out the scene in all aspects and from all angles. That means, for example, specifying what each hand is doing when a character moves. In his left hand he carried…, and in his right hand he carried… The question to ask in revision is, Does the reader need to know these exact details at this exact point? Is it impossible to understand what’s going on unless we know these particular facts? Are these facts relevant right here and now, or do they actually distract the reader from what’s happening? How much detail is just right, and how much is too much?

2. Word and phrase echoes

Another aspect of this type of process is a tendency to repeat the same words and phrases, as we can see in the excerpt above. Repetition is an effective rhetorical device, but it’s one of those things that needs a deft hand and sparing application. A little, in short, goes a long way.

In revision, see what happens when you trim down the repetitive phrases. Cut all but a few, and vary as many of the others as possible. Find different ways to say what needs to be said.

3. Wordiness

When writing draft, the goal is to get the words on the page. Sometimes that takes a bit of maneuvering, of talking around the subject until the meaning takes the shape the author is aiming for. Revision can tighten up the phrasing and make the meaning clearer. Here for example:

And most of all, he had Sincerity’s word that it was impossible for him to fail, no matter the trembling gun, no matter his aching back, no matter biting insects or sneeze-inducing pollen. Even if a mosquito were to take a whack at his neck at just the moment he fired, Sincerity would say that it’s all part of the plan. Baked in, like setting a watch 15 minutes ahead of an appointment he’d never be late for. She’d say there was no way he could ruin his moment to save the world. Every variable, calculated out to the nanosecond, was baked in good as a chocolate chip cookie.

There are some interesting images here, but these five sentences all say the same thing in five slightly different ways. Try condensing this passage into a single sentence. Think about the one or two details that are absolutely necessary here, that convey all the rest, and let those carry the narrative forward.

4. Transitions, flashbacks, and the passage of time

Movement within and between scenes can get challenging at times. When we’re telling each other stories, we often gravitate toward set phrases. And then, and so, or as we see in this chapter, that was when.

Here as elsewhere, variety is the spice of narrative, and the author’s job is to find different ways to say the same thing. It’s important to be clear that time is passing. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, sometimes the best way to do it is not to do it at all. Just move straight from one timeline to the next.

Flashbacks are a different kind of challenge. On the one hand, we need to make sure the reader is clear that the timeline has shifted. On the other, we don’t want to overstate the case.

Hence the use of the pluperfect to distinguish regular narrative past tense (she said) from the more distant past of the flashback (she had said). I tend to go minimalist here. Establish that this part of the scene is a flashback, but then shift to regular past tense. One “had” and then just go on with “said.” That does mean a clear transition back to the regular narrative, some phrase or construction that establishes the shift, but I think it’s less intrusive than a series of verbs marked off with “had.”

5. Viewpoint tagging

This happens a lot in draft. The author frequently reminds the reader (who at that point is basically themself) that THERE IS VIEWPOINT HERE, by the use of reminder words: thought, wondered, saw, and a favorite here, realized. There is often a fair amount of rhetorical questioning, too, as the author blocks the scene through the character’s internal monologue.

When it’s time to revise, it’s time to prune the excess, and think about whether and how often the reader will need to be reminded that they’re experiencing the story through the eyes and mind of a particular character. If the author does it right, they’ll only need to tag once or twice, then trust the reader to stay with the character until the scene or the viewpoint changes. It’s all about trust: the author trusting themself to tell the story clearly and effectively, then trusting the reader to follow where the author leads.

–Judith Tarr