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.
“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” intrigued me, this month, with its quiet, slowly spun tension and how it makes a whole plot out of simple human behaviour against an almost blank canvas. It does a lot with very minimalist lines, but once answers arrived, I found myself feeling unsatisfied. So this month, I’d like to talk about ambiguity in fiction and how we answer the questions our stories put forward.
“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” immediately deploys a strong, palpable sense of atmosphere: simple, unelaborate, but almost surrealist. The disconnect between the unhurried calm of the exit test and the countdown, its growing sense of threat, is a highly effective source of narrative tension; the parallel of the clock ticking down, the clear blue sky as the group turns on each other feels focused in all the right ways—a demonstration of how the four survivors will, even without outside active threats, eventually destroy themselves. It’s the eerie simplicity of Eastern European political fiction, in a SFnal framework.
There are smaller tweaks I’d suggest: shortening the terms-setting scene between Corgan and the Proctor to aim for verisimilitude over exacting detail. The point of the scene as I read it is Corgan’s exactitude, his conviction that he’s covered all the angles, and I think it’s possible to convey that in a shorter, punchier scene; as it stands, the quibbling over details moves the scene from caution into dragging the pace.
I’d also suggest taking out the visual pauses in Corgan and Madrigal’s conversation: it’s known they’re talking between Bullog’s breaths, and the visual static it creates distracted from the story from me, instead of adding to it.
The third thing is the Shofnowsky poem. It has a function as almost a structural timekeeping device, but there’s a risk in including invented poetry in fiction—namely, that when we cast something as famous poetry, it has to stand up to that assessment. I’d suggest getting some poetry critiquer eyes on it, and suggestions as to how to make the poem work more strongly, or trimming it back sufficiently that it does its structural job but doesn’t make that extra work.
However, my main concern in the ending: ultimately, the resolution falls into territory that feels, to me, a bit typical—in the formal sense. For most of its length, “Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” is a suspension in an interesting situation, and it progressively develops certain questions about challenge, human nature, and crisis. When that narrative waveform collapses, though, it collapses into a kind of story, not this story: hubristic scientists analogized to gods, mothers out for revenge, gloating implanted poetry, a very Twilight Zone-style escalating-string-music oh-no reveal. The understatement that’s characterized the story throughout takes a sharp turn into melodrama. The threat has been, throughout, the group tearing each other apart—”There had been no trap in this place after all. The trap was our own nature, ourselves. Inescapable.” Suddenly, the threat is external manipulation by the Proctor after all—petty torture that was going to accomplish nothing all along—and everything the story’s achieved thus far is undermined.
As an answer, I’m not sure the twist of the current ending does the setup—the question—justice. This is an answer to Corgan’s predicament, to the pressures of trying to survive communally in a situation filled with guilt and blame, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for “actually, this is all revenge against which they are powerless” to be the answer: nothing in the thematic arguments, the questions that the story is asking that makes them a satisfying or contiguous answer. Twists can be an interesting surprise, can be shocking, but only if they add up in a way that satisfies the central narrative question the rest of the story’s set up. Otherwise, they’re just discontinuity. The feeling, for me, was a bit like seeing “How do you effectively lead people through a crisis after failure?” answered with “blue cheese”. The end has so little to do with the middle on the thematic level, and having seen it so many times before, I don’t find reducing a whole story to human pettiness with no chance of any growth for anyone especially interesting. The ending, as written, renders the entire read pointless.
So the main suggestion I’d have for this piece would be to ask: What could the why of this story be if it wasn’t a punchline? What is a more interesting choice of answer, one that fits more closely and derives more strongly from the questions it’s actually asking? Which answer takes the questions the story was asking seriously?
It’s not a category to be rated on OWW, but there’s a lot of value to be found for us as writers in cultivating a strong sense of our own subtext—or to put that into plainer terms, learning to identify from the patterns in our own work the questions our stories are asking. Find the questions—think about what the story is saying, asking, what it’s about—and it becomes easier to find an ending with the right fit, by answering or addressing those questions in a way that’s interesting: thoughtful, funny, different, emotional, profound. But for a satisfying ending, the story’s questions by and large should, I think, be engaged in good faith.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)