Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, 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.

MATRIARCHS CHAPTER 2 by Sue Wachtman

This submission hits a number of my Favorite Things buttons. Mystery. Matriarchy. Complicated relationships. Nice chaser of wry humor with topical twist—the Pharm Lords. Indeed.

First, a structural question. When Rif and Winga are married, Hamir attaches himself to them, and stays attached. He seems to be a vehicle for exposition, supplying chunks of information and being supplied with them in turn, and adding comic relief to the awkward interaction between Rif and Winga. I wonder if there might be a more organic way to establish the worldbuilding and to develop the relationship between the new husband and wife: whether they might interact directly, without the addition of a third character, and whether we might see some of the things Winga describes in action rather than being told about them. A private, one-on-one Q&A between Rif and Winga could go in some interesting directions.

If Hamir must be there for Plot Reasons, I’d like be clearer about what those are. Chaperone? Bodyguard? Ritual separation of the newlyweds until they’re properly bound and bedded?

I also wonder why Rif takes the detour to his apartment, and why Winga acquiesces to it. It needs more grounding in the story, and more sense of how it fits into the arc of the plot.

On a more general level, I kept noticing something I call viewpoint tagging. When a writer is establishing viewpoint, she will make use of various phrases and devices that say, “This is the POV. This is the camera angle. This. Right here.” Our experience of events is filtered through one or more characters, rather than conveyed through choice of words, position within a scene (what we see and from where), or emotional reactions to what’s done and said.

Words like thought and saw and wondered will signal that someone else is experiencing events and we’re being told about them. We may get stage directions, too: His eyes moved on, or He returned to his desk and read. And we’ll get sections of internal monologue, with rhetorical questions:

What would it mean, in practical terms, for a planet to be a matriarchy?

So why was she now willing to go back?

What, oh what had he gotten himself into?

When a character stops to think about things and ask himself questions, the story stops, too. The writer’s challenge is to find ways to get the information across while also keeping the plot in motion.

Dialogue is one way to do this, but as the scenes with Hamir demonstrate, it needs to be done with care. If it turns into a form of exposition, or if the character doesn’t necessarily need to be in the scene, the plot will stall again.

Motion is key. Moving events forward. Choosing the right characters for a scene, and establishing why they’re essential to that scene. Developing arcs of emotion, of action and reaction.

Little things help, too. Choice of words. Variety in that choice. Sometimes repetition can be very effective, driving home a point or building tension. But again, this has to be done with care.

The sequence with the admiral and the cookie and the teacup has an odd sort of resonance. Picked up and cookie repeat and re-repeat. On the one hand, there’s an almost ritual quality to it. On the other, it’s not clear if it’s intentional or if it’s what I call brain-echoes—words and phrases that just keep recurring during the writing process. If it is intentional, a little polish and a bit more work on the prose will help make that clear.

In a later scene we’re told Rif’s pants are too tight. Shortly after that, he says they’re too tight. Later he goes through a sequence of suffering with them, then getting them off.

This, like Hamir’s role in the wedding and its aftermath, seems meant to be humorous. Humor needs a deft touch and spot-on timing. Pruning the repetitions will help—rather than telling and then talking, choose the one that works best for the scene—as will thinking through where the characters go after the wedding, and why they go to those particular places at that particular time.

There’s a lot of good stuff happening here. I love Winga’s deadpan comments; of all the characters in this chapter, she’s my favorite. I would definitely like to see more of her.

–Judith Tarr

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