Editor’s Choice Review January 2017, 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.

Skipjack by Eli Zaren

I like the bones of this. It’s got slam-bang space ­action, gengineered monkeys, and a great last line. It really does echo the Heinlein “juveniles,” in a potentially great way.

Three things jump out at me in this draft. I believe they’re all fixable, though one might need some changes in the worldbuilding.

1. There-Was-Itis

This is the last thing to worry about in revision, when the big-ticket items have been dealt with and it’s time to get down to the sentence level, but it’s the first thing a reader notices. So I’m putting it here. It’s especially important in a short story, where every word has to count.

The prose is full of passive constructions and extra words, especially forms of the verb “to be.” Here’s the first sentence:

The explosion in the ship’s air plant was a dead giveaway that something was seriously wrong.

The story literally opens with a bang, but the sentence is passive, and though it’s short by word count, it feels leisurely and low on tension. We’re missing a viewpoint. Who’s telling the story? How do they know there’s an explosion? Where are they, and what are they experiencing—physically and emotionally?

A shift to active voice and an actual, physical point of view would help the reader get straight into the story and sympathizing with the protagonist from the first word. Likewise, as the story goes on, count the number of “was” constructions, and especially “there was.” Can you replace every one of them with an active construction?

I am by no means allergic to the verb “to be,” and I believe this verb, and the passive voice in general, has a definite place in a well-crafted narrative. But a little goes a long way. Especially in action scenes, the more active the prose itself is, the more effective the action tends to be.

That’s why I’m suggesting a full-on carpet-bombing of “there was” constructions here. Get rid of it all, then see how it reads. You can always put a few back in where it’s most effective, or where the pacing needs a breather.

2. Infodumpage

Science fiction has had a long love affair with exposition. Golden Age SF especially adores its big chunks of worldbuilding, just as cozy mysteries love to gather all the suspects in the library for a final explication of the sleuth’s investigation. This story has a Golden-Age feel, and a high percentage of pauses in the narrative while we learn about this particular world.

The problem is that this is a short story, which means there’s much less available space for background details than there would be in a longer piece. If this were the first chapter of a novel, or even a novella, the chunks of exposition would have more room to expand, but at this length, they crowd out other key elements of story: characterization, physical and emotional setting, action and plot movement.

I would suggest pulling out all the expository chunks and choosing from each the one or two (or at most three) absolutely essential details—details without which the story can’t go forward, or the characterization can’t work, or the setting doesn’t make sense. Be ruthless. As with passive verbs, you can always put a few (a very few) back in if they absolutely can’t be missed.

Then, once you’ve done triage on the details, think about how many of them can transform from exposition into action—from tell into show. I love the monkeys. Can you show them doing their thing, give a detail or two of Carmen interacting with them, bring us in close and let us see how they work and why? You may actually find that the word count drops, even while the story’s effectiveness rises. That’s the key to really strong short fiction: making every word count.

3. The Gender Thing

Big props to this story for going there with a female protagonist. That’s both timely and Heinleinian, and it has great potential for making this story work on both levels.

I do, however, have questions about the draft as written.

In 1957, an all-male spaceforce was default. The idea that a female could play with the boys was quite radical, and the narrative might indeed focus on the girly aspects: hair, makeup, and all like that. And she would very probably sit down and keep quiet and assume a subordinate role, above and beyond actual factors of rank or seniority. Because that’s how women had to roll.

It is, however, 2017. Women have been going into space for several decades now, and the US astronaut program is aiming for gender parity. Military forces worldwide are on that same trajectory—not just in the US.

My question therefore is, if your future has taken women’s roles back to 1957, why? What happened? How did an apparently American-based culture regress to this extent—and what has now happened to change that, so that Carmen is allowed to serve as sole female in an all-male crew?

It’s not so much that you need more infodumps, as that there needs to be an underlying sense of how we get from where we are now to where Carmen is. The reason for that, in terms of the story, is that in a world that strongly dominated by males, a woman cannot simply decide she wants to go into space. The barriers to her doing so will be all but insurmountable, and she will have to fight every step of the way to even get near a ship, let alone be allowed to serve as crew on one.

Research the history of women in NASA (start with Hidden Figures—book and film), but also in the Navy and submarine corps, and the history of women in combat. This will give you some context. It will also give you some insight into Carmen’s state of mind and the state of mind of her fellow crewmen.

Or, you might take another direction and open up the world to greater gender parity, so that the ship has a mixed crew and Carmen’s relatively casual decision to go into space makes sense. Then she’s subordinate because she’s the new kid on board. Not because of her gender.

I suspect the latter may be less complicated in terms of rethinking and revision, because the story right now is about the overall crisis with the pirates and the personal crisis with Carmen and her uncle. If you get into gender politics, you’ll change the story from the bottom up, especially if the pirates have gender parity (or a facsimile thereof) and the space force is Patriarchy Central.

I definitely think this aspect of the story needs some rethinking. It sounds from your comments that Carmen is insisting you tell her story. But which story it is, and how she tells it, is up to you (and, of course, Carmen).

Best of luck to you, Carmen, and the space pirates.

–Judith Tarr

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