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.
I was drawn to “The Ruby of Sindbâd” this month by its lush descriptive prose, its sense of place, and the way it creates narrative tension inside one closed, quiet room. However, it also had areas of craft that could be shored up, rethought, or handled differently to address the author’s attached question: Whether it’s a piece to save, or a piece to trunk. This month, I’d like to go directly to that, and discuss how to choose a direction for a piece whose strengths and weaknesses mean each approach produces a very different story.
“The Ruby of Sindbâd” has some real strengths: it’s strongly paced and great with texture: shades and colours, the provenance of objects, and the understanding of the Turki prince as a colonialist surrounded by the spoils of colonialism—Shahrzad included. The slightly different pronunciations of book titles, the depiction of an empire as assembled, not monochrome, make this world feel inhabited, alive, real. There’s a strong attention to material culture here, and a deft hand with imagery.
To this reader, however, the primary issue with “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is wholly structural, and it stems from the characterization. There are two characters in this piece—which means both characters have to carry more weight, and stand in for more humanity—and neither Shahrzad nor Il-Arslan are precisely nuanced. Il-Arslan is an archetypical rich womanizing conqueror, “arrogant” and with no depth beyond kidnapping, womanizing, and “drinking with his viziers”. He’s a straw emperor, shorthanded.
Shahrzad is the weak-appearing woman who is coolly much more powerful than she appears, but the trouble is her absolute lack of textual three-dimensionality—not the reminders that Il-Arslan has power over her or her thorough personal history but her internal narrative, her body language, her reactions—effectively undermines and erases any tension over her fate. Shahrzad’s approach to this encounter is “My plan depends on it” and a grim smile while she ditches the body; Il-Arslan is never a threat. We, the readers, know this story and know how it’s going to go, and so, apparently, does Shahrzad. “The Ruby of Sindbâd” says it’s about escape and telling your truths, about having a story that is stronger than that imposed on you, but structurally, it reduces to a straightforward revenge narrative—a straightforward act of dominance—because the outcome is never, ever in doubt. And when looked at in terms of conflict assessment—through the lens of a story is a character in a situation with a problem or challenge—that means it is very hard to make this a story, because Shahrzad doesn’t really have much of a challenge. Someone tries—apparently weakly—to hurt her; she overwhelmingly hurts him back and takes everything in the process.
It’s that lack of challenge that takes the air out of the story, and makes the last line—the punchline—feel so nasty to me as a reader. This is not a situation in which Shahrzad was ever disempowered, afraid, or anywhere but comfortably in the power position, despite the occasional protests and her being far from home. She has a magic Il-Arslan can’t defend against, she’s apparently just been waiting for her moment to use it, and she is alone with him. It’s over before it started. The little toss of “a mirror for princes” back in dead Il-Arslan’s face reads as the mockery of—ironically—a conqueror; it reads as a sneering I-told-you-so to someone who, trappings aside, has been shown by every beat of this story as utterly incapable of fighting back. And I’m unsure, as a reader, who ending on a metaphorical face jammed in the dirt—that little dominance—is for, precisely; what communicative act “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is after, what it wants to evoke in its readers.
Without weighing in on the question of trunking, if there was to be a revision effort, I’d like to explore a few strategies I think might be effective for determining where to put the work in.
The first stems from that last question: While we don’t always write with readers in mind, and frequently the best work starts in deliberately forgetting readers are around and honestly expressing, it’s a good structural diagnostic to bring the reader lens in during editing. What do we want a story to evoke in readers? Which feeling or idea do we, as writers, want to communicate? Once there’s a solid answer to that question—about speaking one’s truth courageously, or something else—it’s easier to look at edits which will bring that feeling out: either by realigning the nature of the metaphors we’re using, or trimming down information that gets in the way, or adding human urges, needs, and reactions that underline that feeling.
The second question I’d suggest would be: Structurally, how might “The Ruby of Sindbâd” introduce a conflict, or underline to readers that one of its elements is a source of conflict for Shahrzad? I can anticipate that the point is not to make her weak, but strong, calculated protagonists are also human, and also have challenges, have complexities, have choices. Where can a choice or challenge that is appropriate for her be incorporated on the page, so she—and the readers—leave the piece with something more than they started with, internally speaking? Less static in the question of an internal conflict?
The third approach I’d suggest: If this is the story you want to tell, but the power relationship as depicted on the page is getting in the way of that and sabotaging it, how might the power relationship be depicted so it tells that story more effectively?
The final one: If the author’s instinct is that no, these are who these two people are, and this is how they’d react, is there a different situation which might show them off to better advantage? Is there something that can change in the situation that lets Il-Arslan do more than sit and die, and Shahrzad do more than hit and leave? Where might they get a chance to act more fully?
I’ll note that these are strategies and approaches rather than specific quotes and definite fixes; that’s because, I think, “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is still caught up in the question of what it wants to say and be. It is already executing quite effectively on the pacing and prose levels, but that argument between text and subtext—the question of Shahrzad’s agency and conflict—is a question with multiple answers: what does it want to execute?
Which means the most important point I’d like to underscore here is that not all these strategies need to be used. They’re diagnostic questions to figure out the possible directions in which a story might evolve. They’re ways to find out which road feels right to take, or whether—as mentioned—one’s attached enough to a story to keep going with it.
No matter what you choose: Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)