Editor’s Choice Review November 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.

Case Race Part 1 by Bobby Harrell

I was pleased to see this story segment, because I’ve been kind of a broken record in Editor’s Choices about “offstaging” or portraying key actions in a story through characters talking about them afterward—and I’ve also been reflecting that every rule or guideline (since writing rules are really the Pirates’ Code) will sooner or later have its exception.

The opening of this story, for me, is one of those exceptions. Normally I would encourage an author to go for immediate experience: write the scene as it happens, for more vivid effect. But here, opening after the fact and revealing the backstory in stages helps build suspense and creates a mystery. What really happened to Label? How will the stranger aspects shape the story as it moves forward?

These are the kinds of questions an author should want the reader to ask, to keep her turning the pages. Breaking a “rule” allows us to ask them, by revealing the backstory in discrete installments while developing the characters and building the world around them. By the time the story moves into present time, we have a sense of where we are and who is traveling with us, and a set of questions that we hope will be answered as the story continues.

Tl;dr: If it serves a distinct narrative purpose, and the story works well when told this way, you can break any “rule” in the book. Pirates’ Code.

I do have some questions and confusions that might be answered in revision. (Because editors, even more than readers, always have questions.)

First, Label’s name. That’s as much a personal quirk as anything else; I’m sensitive to the power of names. Which leads me to read her name as “Label on a bottle,” though I suspect it may be more of a French version, shortened from La Belle and pronounced that way? Because I’m reading it the way I am, I keep bouncing a little bit out of the story, wondering how and why she received the label, and what it means in her world.

I’m not quite clear on what a case is, as well. There are bits and pieces, but I think a little bit of description might be helpful. Show more detail about her getting into her case, perhaps? Let us have a few more visuals?

The same applies to what the race is, how it works, and where it happens. I was confused for quite a while as to whether the race was real or virtual, whether the case was an actual vehicle/body armor or a sophisticated VR device. By the time the segment ended, I was pretty sure it was a real-world race, but I’m still wondering if I was missing something.

The sparseness of description mostly works, but I think a little more here and there will clarify parts of the worldbuilding. For example I wondered how the garage could only be a meter tall—are humans that much smaller in this universe than they are here? I’d have liked just a bit of explanation there.

One more thing caught my attention, and that’s the ethnicity of some characters’ accents. I get the worldbuilding element of populations preserving their dialect, but there’s an art to portraying that dialect that I’m missing here. I really am glad the text didn’t try to go full-on phonetic dialect; that’s so hard to read and so difficult to do without tripping over questions of racism and classism. But the ms. has further to go, I think, in evoking the sound and sense of these characters’ speech. It’s almost there with certain word choices, bits of distinctive vocabulary. It just needs a touch more.

I might suggest studying these dialects, really listening to them. Vocabulary and diction are part of it, but so are sentence constructions, rhythm and flow, the way people put their words together. If the rhythm is right, and if the choice of words and idioms is likewise on point, the reader can get an amazingly clear sense of how the dialect works, even when the text is written in more or less standard English. It’s like a line drawing: catching the handful of elements that convey the sense of the whole.

As to the question in the Author’s Note: I think it’s a solid start. It makes me want to read on, get to know the characters and the world better, and see how the story unfolds.

—Judith Tarr

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