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.
This concept hits a sweet spot for me. I just love getting wicked with science, and I am irresistibly fascinated by “Ghost Hunters” and all the rest of the paranormal shows. I realize that Proper Science does not recognize the existence of ghosts and the paranormal, but oh, what fun to watch people try to prove it. Pseudoscience, homemade tech, running dudes, and all.
So for me personally, this is a Yes, Let Me See More. I cannot speak for agents or editors; that’s not my brief. What I can do is point to ways in which the partial might be polished for submission.
The first thing I would note is that the concept is close to that of a podcast from 2016 called “LifeAfter”: ttps://www.fastcompany.com/3065471/ge-podcast-theater-returns-with-a-new-sci-fi-thriller-lifeafter. It’s probably wise to cite the predecessor and let the agent know how your novel differs from it. If it’s inspired by the podcast, say so. If it’s a case of Great Minds Thinking Alike, that’s notable as well; but it’s good to be aware that there’s something like it out there.
As for the partial itself, I have some thoughts.
Clarity: On a cold read, it’s a little hard to get the picture of where and when this novel is set. I wondered if it was set on a space station, and was the robot real or imaginary or part of an alternate universe the protagonist had slipped into? Why have a robot in one’s room? Does everybody have one? Somewhat later we learn the year and some salient details of what has changed and not changed since the present day, but I might have oriented myself more quickly if this information had appeared earlier.
Worldbuilding and Logistics: Near-future SF is tough to do. Because the world is built so directly from our own, the extrapolation has to be spot on. I would wonder if Facebook is going to last as long as the ms. says it will, considering how short the epochs of online communities are. Would it be more advisable to invent a social network several generations down from Facebook, and if so, would a relatively young person even remember that Facebook existed? Think about MySpace or, really going back into the mists of time, GEnie.
I wonder about the narrator, too. He opens with a peroration on midnight phone calls (would those still be a thing in 2032? Or would they be texts or direct brain downloads or…?), which implies that he gets a lot of them. Is he a Jessica Fletcher-like nexus for sudden deaths? Is his occupation somehow prone to multiple fatalities?
Words and Polish: A submission package has to be as close to perfect as the author can make it. It’s best foot forward all the way—and that means every word should be just the right one. We all try not to use the same old same old words and phrases, but sometimes the effort to say things differently can confuse rather than enthuse.
Some examples that caught my eye as I read:
the glow of its display blinking on where it lay on my nightstand. It took me a minute to figure out which “on” went with which verb, and was the display lying on the nightstand, or was it the whole structure?
I…opted to be the fish that bit the hook and called Arif back. On reading through a couple of times, I unpacked what must be the intended meaning—a reference to a fish taking the lure—but as written, the sentence states that the fish called Arif after biting the hook.
and like some irritating sticky paper at the bottom of my shoe, there was no shaking the call from my head. Figurative language brings life to a story, but it’s a delicate balance between vivid imagery and phrasing that bumps the reader out of the story. Here, the drama of the moment is powerful; trying to ramp it up with a simile of some length actually lessens the drama. Keeping it simple also keeps it strong and keeps the story moving briskly forward.
I stammered out a question. “Are you…sure he’s…dead?” It sounded stupid, but I didn’t realize that until after I’d said it. A bunch of things are going on here. We’re told he stammers, then we’re shown how he does it. One or the other would do the job; it’s not really necessary to give us both—and then to undercut it with an editorial comment on how stupid it sounds. Tighter writing, pulling it all together into a single line, would convey the essential information while also, again, keeping things moving.
Chess’ reaction to Bram’s shocked “Jesus Christ” wanders a bit, too; he takes it for a statement of religious belief, which seems odd and somewhat off topic, as does the extended discussion that follows. The connections need to be clearer and the conversation more organic, flowing more naturally out of the characters and their situation.
I would suggest a thorough copyedit and a word-by-word revision, striving for tightness, focus, clarity. Pare away repetition, keep the figurative language to a minimum, and make sure the meaning of every sentence is clear.
Bram’s voice tends to be discursive, which is an aspect of his character, but he circles around and around the same words and phrases, the phone call, his incredulity, his ongoing expectation or hope that Arif is alive after all. It’s clear how Bram feels; cutting and tightening his expression of those feelings will actually make the story stronger. When you reduce repetition to a minimum, you give yourself more room for story-stuff, and more space to stretch your narrative muscles.