March 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“Weed is Just Context (Part 1)” by Mary Agner

I was drawn to “Weed is Just Context” this month because of its fascinating worldbuilding, terse and intense narrative voice, and rather original conflict. However, the amount of information required to build that worldbuilding in that terse narrative voice means it’s a piece that is, scene by scene, constantly compromising between tone and showing off the richness of its world. This month, I’d like to look at when it’s a good idea to take a short story longer—and what the signs are that it’s time to go deeper into a narrative.

“Weed is Just Context” does a great job of making its science feel internally consistent. Nara’s pea plant experiments connect to her genetic modifications, which connect to the climate change and food and water scarcities worldwide, biological and physical solar panels, the relative plenty on the Farm, and the shadow of Greg, Suzanne, and Chris’s obviously stormy personal and professional history. Every piece of this world echoes well off every other piece, and the whole feels scientifically rich without falling into a technical treatise.

The character dynamics are just as complex. Having Nara tangle with the mystery of her parentage and the history of the Farm as well as her friends’ personhood, safety, and ability to fight back makes for a story environment rich with possibilities, and there are already strong indications that all of those questions are connected.

With a great concept, layered storytelling, and a distinct and brisk protagonist, there’s a lot already going well in “Weed is Just Context”, even without the second half. But there are elements that it’s hard to evaluate well: This is part of a story, not an entire one, and so there’s no real way to say if the structure works, if all the clues line up to a cohesive thematic argument, or if the piece is going to stick the landing. As well, the author’s mentioned this is a middle draft, and there’s a lot of fine-tuning to do over some very solid bones. With that in mind, I’ll keep my suggestions this month to scene-by-scene craft.

“Weed is Just Context” has a lot to say, and it’s overall quite dense through the first half, when most of the setting and character information is being established. My main piece of advice is to, on the whole, let some air into the story—let it be long.

I’ve mentioned in previous months that my most frequent reason for writing a rejection letter was that the story was too long for its plot: the amount of words didn’t match the amount of matter there was to talk about. However, it’s entirely possible to get that equation the other way around, and have more story, more interesting world and interactions, than the amount of words on the page is really doing justice to. There’s enough material in “Weed is Just Context” to merit a novelette or novella length, and taking more time with the pace, fleshing out details, and narrating through rather than over some of its events will, I think, help readers fully engage with it.

What are, well, the tipoffs? “Weed is Just Context” has a lot of little, crucial clues that are easy to miss or skip over—for example, the comment about hacking brains instead of feet. On my second and third read, I picked up multiple pieces of setup for later events that didn’t register as important the first time, slight as they were, or embedded in other context.

Putting more space and air into “Weed is Just Context” will also solve the issue where some scenes—notably the opening one, and the entire sequence with Nara’s kidnapping—are abrupt enough that they’re not appropriately impactful; they feel outlined, rather than a whole and complete part of the story. Nara’s entire kidnapping, servitude, and escape barely register, they’re narrated through so quickly. Her tears over the others not following her out make sense, but they’re not something I’ve even had time to feel. More time spent with those events could deepen their impact and make sure readers feel there are stakes in that sequence.

A related issue to that density is how we meet the characters. There are a lot of character names introduced very early, and “Weed is Just Context” might benefit from spacing and thinning them out. Names aren’t in and of themselves significant. While we can say a lot about a character with their name—notably touch on readers’ built-in cultural assumptions, for good or ill—it’s frequently a better strategy to limit the amount of new names in a scene and spend more time giving readers a subtle detail about who that person is to let each character anchor well in the world of the story. A focus on the characters who end up proving important to the plot might be a good approach; more depth, differentiating details, and dialogue variety on fewer people—especially Suzanne, who comes across as a little too flat of a villain—rather than the degree of breadth we’re seeing now. While it’s realistic that people who aren’t plot-central would be around, sometimes they create unnecessary noise as readers balance them against all the other information we introduce, and I’m feeling like this is currently the case.

On another note, there’s some beautiful language here without compromising the terse, wound-up tone of Nara’s narrative voice. I particularly liked the description of light (“photons making free everywhere”) and the physicality of a lot of Nara’s metaphors (“looks squashing me into the main house and classes”). However, it’s not always a strategy that’s working in favour of the story. I’ve referenced this insight from OWW grad Rae Carson before: If everything goes up to 11, 11 is actually two. Or, more plainly, intricate language can really lend weight to the moments we really want readers to spend time on, but if everything is intricate and dense and ornamented, it’s frequently hard for readers to pick out what in the story is supposed to be important.

To pull out an example, “I don’t need more than twilight to see he blushes” can be easily simplified and still get across the same information: It’s twilight, and Faro is blushing. Simplifying sentences that aren’t conveying crucial information—shortening the commitment of reader-seconds devoted to them—helps indicate what’s important now, and lets us create the effect where small details come out and become important later.

While there’s limited value I can provide, critiquing only part of a story, all those points suggest that giving “Weed is Just Context” a little more space to breathe, pace itself out, and engage with its material would help spread the worldbuilding into an absorbable consistency, show readers which information is important, and ultimately, improve emotional engagement with Nara, her plight, and the mission she’s about to go on.

I look forward to the second half!

–Leah Bobet
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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