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.
This month we have our first review from new Science Fiction Resident Editor, Judith Tarr.
Judith Tarr’s first novel,The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015, and she’s currently completing a sequel. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies, epic fantasies and a great deal of science fiction. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. In her editorial incarnation, she’s taught novel writing at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, has twice been an instructor at Clarion, and for the past decade has been editing and teaching online. We’re thrilled to have Judith join us here at OWW.
This month I picked a short story because I wanted to talk about a particular issue that every writer faces, at every length, and this story is perfect: it concentrates everything into a compact package. There’s a lot of worldbuilding there, and a lot of plot for the length. There’s a nice sense of a larger universe outside the boundaries of the story.
I like it. It has a clear point, and it sticks to it for the most part (though see below). The ending says all it needs to say without adding another scene.
What I’d like to address is something I see quite often in drafts of all lengths. It has to do with thinking things through: in this case, the background of the character and the way she presents herself in the story. The questions the author asks, and the answers she provides, lead me to more questions:
Is this character thinking and acting in line with her pay grade?
Does she show competence in her job?
Does she appear to know everything she should know, and does she use that knowledge appropriately?
We find out fairly late in the story that Cassie is a military medic, though we get the gist of it right at the start with the fact that Cassie has been in combat, and the reference to Brian as her patient. It’s clear she has a responsibility to him, and she’s feeling it as she goes looking for him.
What’s not coming through is a sense of Cassie as essentially competent at her job. She thinks of Brian as “that fool,” which may be intended as a sort of joke but comes across as rather callous. Why does she feel this way? What makes her view a patient, who is apparently quite well educated, as an idiot? Does this affect her ability to do her job—from her bedside manner to her judgment in timing or selecting treatments?
Then, as a medical person who would presumably be aware of scientific terminology at least in terms of drugs and diseases, she reflects on the name of the alien otter-possum-whatevers as being “something unpronounceable.” The reader starts to wonder why why a scientific expedition needs an army medic with relatively little education, when it might be more economical to have one or more of them be an MD/PhD. Fewer bodies to use up resources, and greater diversification of skills among the available personnel. What requires her, specifically, to be there?
The main point where Cassie’s characterization falls down however is in the slowness with which she responds to a possible case of anaphylactic shock. She not only takes her time tracking Brian down, she actually forgets about him for a not insignificant amount of time. She’s not acting or thinking like a trained medic. Anaphylactic shock is not the sort of thing that allows a medic to tour a lab, stop for coffee, and get distracted by odd alien behavior on her way to the patient. It’s life-threatening, and time-critical.
She’d probably have a stronger reaction than “Crap” when she finds him, too. Cassie’s lack of affect points to lack of thinking through who she is and what she’s there for. She’s not operating on the level a reader might expect for someone of her training and experience.
Luckily the fix isn’t terribly complicated, and needn’t add many if any words to the story. A line or two would underscore the reason why Cassie’s presence is essential here. A change in the wording throughout would give her more credibility: a shift in attitude toward her patient, a sense of urgency as she juggles her concern about the aliens along with her concern about Brian, and a more solid reason why it takes her so long to find him.
Rather than her forgetting about him, what situation can she encounter that prevents her from getting to him as quickly as she wants to? The scene with Dr. Ramirez has lots of potential in that direction. Cassie is trying to get to Brian, the alien dissection derails her, she has to deal with that while also being even more desperate to find him.
Then when she does find him, think about how she feels as a medical practitioner. Her patient is down, and turns out to be dead. Does she feel responsible? Guilty? Angry? What complex of emotions will run through her, in view of her history, her background, and her training for the job?
All of this can happen without adding big chunks of words. What the story needs is different words, more focused and carefully chosen, in place of the ones that are already there.
Rethinking the character, and thinking through who she is, what she’s been trained for, and why she’s in this particular place, will give both the story and the character more depth. It’s still fun, it’s still tightly focused, it’s just a little bit stronger in both character and plotting.