Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Short Story

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.

If All You’ve Known Is Winter by Russell Shannon

I was struck this month by the simplicity of “If All You’ve Known is Winter”: a quiet, clean, troubling story floating on a base of complex and interesting worldbuilding, one with nuanced things to say about the way sex and community and how the hunger for intimacy can shade into and sabotage itself. However, while the way this story uses archetype, distance, and focus could be a tidy comment on the protagonist and his arc, those elements could still achieve more with a little work to make them more controlled. So this month, I’d like to talk about taking a stylistic element from a feature that could still possibly be a bug—and turning it into a tool.

“If All You’ve Known is Winter” has a number of craft aspects running beautifully already. There’s a great use of tactile detail, for starters: it has a real handle on the small physical gestures that show intimacy—and help me feel the nameless protagonist’s yearning for and lack of it.

The thematics are efficiently underlined by the worldbuilding: Rhea’s grey, icy landscape, notably devoid of places to congregate, made up of hard mattresses and dry breakfast biscuits and sterile corporate meetings and rock. It’s a tidy move to set that scene and then introduce Tyrus with a slice of wet, juicy cantaloupe. There’s not much idea work going into Heatscape, but there doesn’t need to be: it’s designed to do the kind of work the story needs to talk about what it’s interested in.

Our narrator is a messy protagonist; the way he can’t actually express what he wants, the way he can’t seem to understand the difference between reciprocal community—what the queer bar on Rhea has—and mutual use, the way he treats Tyrus once the waiter’s risked his own freedom on his account. His suffocating loneliness comes across absolutely clearly, and that yearning to see and be seen—to find other people like him, even if it’s in secret—made him much more compelling for me as a reader. It’s an incredibly core human urge, and the way he brutally screws it up, the way he can’t actually handle it once he’s got it, satisfies even in its disappointment. He’s had to damage someone in order to connect with them truly, damaged as he is. That rings true.

It’s overall a very clean piece, very sharp and muted in its tonal lines, and effective at doing what it’s set out to do.

I do have a few suggestions; more tinkering than major rewrites at this stage. “If All You’ve Known is Winter” does feel at times like it goes on a bit longer than its own plot. I think there’s a possibility of taking a few hundred words out of this piece, just to have it feel more streamlined—most likely in the paragraphs where the protagonist is pacing and crackling about his loneliness, or dithering in small ways.

I also wanted to raise the question of whether the facelessness and namelessness of everyone else in the piece is deliberate: a way of commenting on the protagonist’s issues with intimacy and distance. If not, it might be worthwhile to condense some of the action around his work duties and his boss with a few concrete details: a name, a specific kind of report, etc. It’s the sort of adjustment that would bring those paragraphs more cleanly into focus.

Likewise, some of the details could use stronger consideration: What kind of drink is he getting in the bar? Is there anything more unique and specific than pink curtains and fairy lights, since this character lives in stereotype but the Rhea queer community doesn’t?

This is where the question of whether a stylistic choice is something underthought as of yet or an active storytelling tool comes in for me, as a reader. The mutedness of this protagonist’s viewpoint could be saying something about his relationship to intimacy, to emotional distance. But as a reader I can’t be sure, because I’m not seeing the author demonstrate, in the places that aren’t focusing on the narrator’s personal perceptions and interactions—places like how the bar decorates—that they themselves have the range to execute a vibrant, specific style.

Ultimately, this is the same question as the dry biscuits and juicy cantaloupe: each makes the other mean something thematic in “If All You’ve Known is Winter”. It’s the same with using a deadened or muted descriptive style to tip readers off to a deadened or muted character: it’s much clearer that means something thematic if there’s a counterexample or three, something to signal readers that what we’re doing is deliberate.

So what I’d ultimately suggest for “If All You’ve Known is Winter” is a draft that looks for those opportunities to establish the narrator’s POV—his perspective—more strongly, and does so with a few small touches that underline that the rest of Rhea isn’t quite like him. It’s a small adjustment, but I think a meaningful one: something that’ll bring more life into an already cohesive story.

Best of luck with the piece!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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