Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, Short Stories

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.

The Meek Shall Inherit by Bill S.

I was drawn to “The Meek Shall Inherit” this month not because of its topical content, but its clean, clear voice work, its humility, and its ethic of rebuilding: viral intelligence as a literalization of resilience in the face of disaster. And because it’s a story about handling failure and what living is. However, it’s also one that’s not quite put together yet mechanically, and the author’s notes speak directly to that. So this month, I’d like to discuss diagnosing a story’s potential issues based on feedback—and how to decide which adjustments will address them.

There are a lot of strengths in “The Meek Shall Inherit”: its narrative voice is cleanly, quickly established, vivid and complete inside a few sentences. Cadence is still a visible strength here, and a quiet but sharp emotional intelligence that’s visible in Sibby, Sorely, Stub and the protagonist’s interactions.

Imagery is also a strong point, as it’s been in this workshopper’s other pieces. The gentle tactility of “the swimming pools filled in bit by bit as fingers of green reached out from all edges of them” and vividness of “skyscrapers like massive gray jagged teeth chewing up the sky” go a long way to making “The Meek Shall Inherit” compelling as it sets up its world and characters.

Foremost, though: It is kind. There is an unvarnished simplicity to this narrative voice that radiates love for the protagonist’s people and the places they travel through. I found “Sorely keeps me sane, and safe. James–Stub we call him–keeps me honest, and kind. The world keeps me on my toes, but mostly I keep us going” deeply emotionally affecting: both in how it sets the tone for what this post-apocalypse’s particular values are and how ably it shows the protagonist’s love for their family.

Plotting was mentioned in the author’s notes as a frequent point raised in rejection letters, so I’ve focused on peeling those strengths back to see what they’re compensating for—and what might be able to be reinforced or reworked to get this piece from positive rejection letters to acceptances. I think there are two potential ways to consider that feedback.

Firstly, I’d suggest some of what’s being discussed as plotting here overlaps with pacing. “The Meek Shall Inherit” is a very long piece when weighed against what happens in it when it’s stripped down to a summary. It’s potentially twice as long as it needs to be to handle the action it’s tackling; to set up the problem and find a solution to it. By “Every day is a treasure” I’m looking for a moment of change, choice, or challenge—even the hint of one coming over the horizon beyond a notice that things were going to go bad.

There’s a frequent temptation to establish a character’s “normal” so readers can feel the impact of its changing, but especially in aiming at genre markets, that pause can stall the narrative motion—the plotting. I’d suggest taking all the information on the family’s normal routine and finding whether there’s a place to work that into other scenes without giving readers informational overload in those moments—and just cutting any that’s not actively relevant.

I’d also look at the sentence level for chances to be more deliberate about the pace. Each one of the protagonist’s observations is lovely individually, but together they start to bunch and clog. I’d suggest considering: where are they most effectively deployed? How do the descriptions interact with other elements of the story—where are they slowing those down, and where supporting them? Where is a point becoming a speech and then a rant, and would it be made effectively as just a point?

Secondly, I’d look at the approach toward its conflict. Ayla and Went’s basic disagreement—knowledge and intellectual literacy versus guns, science versus religion, communal societies versus authoritarian—is not precisely a new or novel battle line. These are the obvious fault lines in our current society, and while that’s a tricky business, because it means they’re relevant fault lines, they’re also the ones that are hard to place into fiction explicitly without having readers think I’ve seen this a hundred times before.

I think “The Meek Shall Inherit” has a good thing to say about that question and what the act of protection is, but would suggest that this story could be effective if it even tackled one of those conflicts, without having to be about all of them. There’s an overwhelm in trying to handle the entirety of society as it is—for readers as well as writers—and just like when we’re writing a description, the right detail is often better than a generality.

This is, I think, not a question of genre versus literary but sheer structural execution. And when the question of what “The Meek Shall Inherit” wants to specifically tackle—which of those conflicts best sets up its emotional realization—and how many words of story are right for that plot is handled, I think there’s a place for it in the current genre environment.

Best of luck!

And to everyone reading the Editor’s Choices this month: I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy, and please stay safe.

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, Fantasy

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.

Chaos Is What You Make Of It by Tom Jackson

High fantasy, or epic fantasy as it’s also called, has its own rhythms and pacing, its own voice and style. Its scope is vast and its stakes as high as the world. Its plots can be quite leisurely in their unfolding, wandering off on byways of history and characterization, or taking time to set up every aspect of a development in the story. Readers expect this; they come to the genre to be immersed deeply and extensively in a fictional universe.

Even so, the rules of narrative economy continue to apply. As rich and detailed as the epic style can be, every word still has to count. It’s especially important to make sure that words and phrases mean exactly what the author wants them to mean. Figurative language and rhetorical devices should enhance the story and its characters, but not overwhelm them.

The first thing I’ll note is that the rewritten opening sequence doesn’t work for me. I have no problem with starting a novel in the middle of a dramatic episode, and filling in exposition and backstory in later scenes. The opening in this draft crams together two disparate elements: climbing a mountain and lecturing a pair of novices. Either one might serve on its own, but together they don’t quite mesh. There’s too much going on at once.

One solution would be to pick one of the two—the climb or the lecture—and make that the opening, but the story proper begins with the preparation for battle. The rule here, or guideline if you will, is to begin as close to the ending as you can while still getting the important parts of the story in. The stake-setting scene does that. The climbing scene seems less organic in its construction: it reads as an attempt to juice up the exposition by making it happen while the characters are Conscientiously Doing Stuff. The scaffolding is a little too clearly visible, whereas the stake-setting serves a clear purpose. It moves the story forward.

Structurally I think the original opening is more economical, more relevant, and also more vivid. The necessary backstory can be worked in later. What matters now is getting to the point of this introductory sequence: the monks and the race war, and the setup for the rest of the novel.

A crucial part of getting to the point is the prose itself, the way the story is written. I usually advise not worrying about that while the story is in draft. Get the big stuff working first—plotting, characters, setting, worldbuilding—and then focus on the word-by-word.

When that time comes, I suggest a concerted campaign of pruning and tightening of the prose, paying careful attention to the meanings of words and phrases. Sometimes I’m not sure what a line means: The art of manipulating body to will. What is this trying to say? And here: saliva feeling acrid in her mouth. Acrid is a taste rather than a sensation. What other, more precisely calibrated word would be appropriate here?

Watch for mixed metaphors, too, and figurative language that goes a bit (or more than a bit) overboard. This, for example: The shameful prayer rattled in her mind, a drum she could not silence. The image catches the reader up short, because while a drum can rattle, it’s more likely to be a thud or a roar or a hammer. When the reader stops like that, the story stops, and the reader’s engagement with it is interrupted. She loses the thread of the narrative.

Really effective figurative language keeps the reader inside the story, even if she may pause to admire the author’s cleverness with words. It’s better I think to dispense with the imagery rather than lose the reader’s attention. The experience should be as seamless as possible.

There are other ways as well to smooth out the prose, to make the story move more efficiently while keeping the sense of high style and cosmic stakes. I would suggest reducing or eliminating the italicized thought-balloons, the ongoing internal monologue. For the most part these interpolations explain what’s already explained by words or actions. Are any of them really necessary to move the story forward? Do they add anything significant to the character’s development?

The same applies on a larger scale to the frequent repetitions, the over-and-overing of descriptions and actions and reactions. Sometimes these repetitive phrases serve a rhetorical purpose, in a prayer or a rousing speech. But as with all rhetorical flourishes, a little goes a long way.

Frequent repetitions clog the pipes of the story. Once or twice may be vivid and memorable, but if the same devices appear over and over, they cancel each other out. My suggestion would be to eliminate all repetitions, even those in prayers and speeches–right down to the phrasing: breath catching in throat, heart pounding in chest; just let the breath catch, the heart pound. Then try restoring just one or two of the greater flourishes, the incantations or the speeches, where they’re most strong and effective. See if the story comes through more clearly, and the characters’ actions and motivations are clearer as well, now the stylistic undergrowth has been pruned away.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, 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.

Sometime Through The Stars by Kate Ellis

I chose this submission for this month’s SF Editor’s Choice because I love alternate history, and because this particular setting is not one I’ve seen before. The Author’s Note promises broad and deep research, and the chapter delivers. There’s no way to fake the kind of attention to detail that we see here, the sense of time and place and culture that I like to call “period sense.”

What makes it even more impressive is that although there is plenty of exposition, and plenty of backstory incorporated into the narrative, it feels organic to me. The story develops at a steady and convincing pace; the expository bits enhance rather than obstruct the progression of events. It’s dense, chewy, and engrossing.

The one question I have relates to the character of Zoya. Her background and her personality come through strongly from the start; it’s clear she has traits that make her unusually well suited to the confinement and the sensory deprivation she’ll be asked to endure when (if) she goes into space. When she’s fobbed off on Lidiya however—a clear conflict for Lidiya between wanting to do her job regarding the payload, but being forced into a conventional female nurturing role—the interaction between them seems to me to need a bit more development, a little more layering of emotion and reaction. As written in the draft, Zoya’s words and actions don’t quite match the intensity of Lidiya’s reaction to them.

She comes across as blunt and opinionated, sliding over into actual rudeness, but I didn’t quite pick up on the abrasiveness that affects Lidiya so strongly. Lidiya is a bit raw and resentful to start with; that comes through. I’d have liked to see just a hair more from Zoya, a tone of voice, a glance, an expression, something to enhance the effect she’s having on Lidiya. It doesn’t need a lot; a line here, a phrase there, would do it. Just to bring out the conflict a little more clearly, and sharpen the emotional edge between the two women.

The transition from Lidiya’s story to Masha’s is a little jarring, but in a very good way. We’ve been immersed in one well-developed setting. Now here’s another, completely different, but clearly connected in some way that we’ll come to see as the story unfolds. It moves along rapidly, it shows another aspect of this strange-familiar world. It definitely makes me want to know what happens next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, Horror

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.

Helping You Be Your Best Self by Emily Scharff

The underlying idea, that a possessing entity can be a better Maya than Maya herself can be, is engaging and thought provoking.  The story does a good job at the start of showing Maya’s depressed nature, her dependence on Roger, and her motivation to “skip” parts of her life.  Her discovery that those important to her prefer the “possessed” Maya to the real one carries some good impact.  I think ending with Roger is the right way to end, since that relationship seems to be the most important one to Maya.  The message that the entity conveys at the end, “A happier you for a happier world,” conveys the situation Maya faces very clearly.

I’ll discuss the editorial feedback this revision is intended to address last.  First, I want to share my thoughts about the story.  If they aren’t useful for this story, perhaps they can help you with future pieces.

I think the story could be strengthened by increasing its unity, making all the elements work together.  Right now, the story seems to have several elements that don’t seem incorporated as well as they might be.  For example, Kevin seems very important in the opening scene, when we learn that he seemingly molested Maya, and she chooses to “skip” over her mother’s party because she doesn’t want to face him again.  Yet Kevin is barely mentioned in the story after that, as if he was just an excuse the author used to make Maya click on the app.  She later sees photos of the party, but there’s no mention of Kevin.

Because the problem of how she’ll deal with Kevin seems like the biggest problem in the opening, I’m most interested in finding out what happened with Kevin in the second scene, and I feel like something’s missing at the end when the situation with Kevin isn’t tied into the climax and conclusion.  I don’t think we actually need to meet Kevin in the story.  I think that dropping a hint or two into the story about what happened could be effective.  For example, when Maya is in school, I think you can raise the issue of Kevin more strongly.  I was fairly confused about her interaction with the teacher and why she got so upset.  What if the teacher hands back a test on which Maya did very poorly, and the teacher comments, “I thought you were getting tutoring three times a week.  Maybe your parents should ask for their money back.”  I think that could send Maya running from the room and could carry some pretty horrific implications, if she’s been seeing Kevin three times a week for a month.  The story might also describe a photo with Maya and Kevin in it, so we could get a hint of what the relationship is between Kevin and the possessed Maya.  Does she now dominate him?  As is, Maya mainly seems worried she’ll have to see him again, which is the same problem she had at the beginning.  That means this plotline is “stuck” in that situation and is not developing it.  Try to take it the next step.

It would also help to have two interactions with the mother rather than just one; that would help tie the mother into the story better.  If we could see her interacting with Maya in the first scene, we could get a sense of how the mother feels about Maya.  This could be brief, just the mother leaning into Maya’s bedroom during her texted conversation with Roger to say a line or two and then leave.  The mother might express her dissatisfaction that Maya isn’t wearing the lipstick the mother left for her, or something like that.

Another element that could be better incorporated into the story is what Maya thinks about her relationship with Roger.  At the end, she’s surprised at the feeling that Roger remained her friend out of pity and that she has been a burden to him.  So what does she think about their relationship at the beginning?   She thinks they’re friends, but I don’t get much more than that.  Does she think they both help each other, when in reality it’s always Roger helping her?  Does she think he really enjoys helping her?  The ending will have more impact if we know how different the reality is from her perception.  That’s not clear now.

The other area I think could be strengthened is Maya’s behavior.  For me, the believability of Maya’s character was undermined several times because I didn’t believe she would do what the story showed me.  The initial message she sees on her phone, “Want to skip through your day?” creates in my mind the image of a child skipping along.  It doesn’t make me think about skipping over unpleasant events.  So when Maya is immediately interested in the message, and immediately seems to read it as offering her the power to skip over events, I don’t believe that and don’t believe in her as a person.  It makes me feel as if the author knows what she means and is conveying that knowledge to the character, while the reader is left out.  If the message said something like, “Want to skip over parts of your day?” then I’d understand it as Maya does.  Or it could address the issue differently and tie better to the later messages; for example, “Are you unhappy?” or “Is your world an unhappy place?” or “Want to cope better with your life and be a happier you?”  A message like this could also add more unity to the entity’s messages through the story and to the decision that Maya must make in the story.

When she thinks, near the end of the first scene, that the advertised service would allow her to skip the party, that seems forced by the author, not something Maya would really think for two reasons.  First, because the ad doesn’t clearly claim that, as discussed above.  Second, because I don’t believe she would buy such a crazy claim, even if it was made clearly.  Maybe, if the claim is made clearly, she could think the service being offered is some sort of meditation or technique to cope with upsetting events.

I have a similar problem in the second scene, when she jumps from thinking she was in an accident to believing she was possessed.  To me, it seems like she’d have a step between these where she might question her sanity and might wonder whether she has Dissociative Identity Disorder.  She could check her texts in the second scene rather than the third scene, before the message from the entity.  I’m not sure why the entity deleted her texts with Roger.  It seems like she just told Roger that should stay apart.  And I think the entity would know that she’d talk to Roger and find out what the entity told him.  Anyway, it could be interesting for her to look for texts with Roger and not find any in the last month, but then see she’s been texting Kevin.  Or texting other people she doesn’t know.  Or texting a popular girl at school.  That would help me to accept that she believes she’s been possessed after the entity’s message.

Those are the main points I wanted to cover.  The revision request talked about making the ending more ambiguous.  While I can’t comment on the “more” part, because I haven’t read the previous version, I think the story’s end is ambiguous, and I feel generally satisfied by it.  The request also asked for more of an exploration of the entity’s motivation.  I think the messages from the entity could be strengthened some and made more unified, as discussed above, and I think that could more strongly suggest/imply the entity’s motivation.  I don’t need more than that.  Finally, the request asked for more time to resolve the friendship.  I discussed the Maya/Roger relationship above; I think you could strengthen the relationship arc by making some changes in those areas.

I enjoyed reading the story.  You succeed at accomplishing a lot in a short piece.  I hope my comments are helpful.

Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, 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.

Night Harrowing by Catherine Hansen

“Night Harrowing” caught my attention this month with the cadence of its prose, its visual imagination, and deeply poignant ending: that you can’t enter heaven without someone in your arms. However, there are a few aspects of the current draft which, as the author asked, I think might help move it from positive rejection letters to finding a home: thinking about specificity, concreteness, and what questions readers might be asking. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to bring out the most interesting version of a story: specific details, novelty, handling attention, and what the story itself reacts to.

There’s a strong sense of rhythm that kicks in right away in “Night Harrowing”, wry and tired and humble, and I was drawn to its single-mother protagonist and the small flares of beautiful language she sprinkles here and there: “breaking hard soil for new planting” and the gorgeous, grim idea of a “colossal, pitch-black voice”. However, the understructure beneath it isn’t, for me, firing on all cylinders, and I think there are a few reasons for that—all of which boil down to what “Night Harrowing” treats as interesting, and how it reacts to its own content.

“Night Harrowing” starts with a slightly apologetic relationship to its own sense of being interesting. While there are great uses out there for a framing story, or a scene that’s almost a teaser for the rest of the piece, there are definite downsides: they can rob impact from the piece in the first scene by telling readers there’s an interesting bit coming—the harrowing of hell—but not yet. Everything we put in a story shapes reader expectations, and “interesting but not yet” is no exception; everything I read filters through that lens of a harrowing is coming, and that will be interesting. Everything until that harrowing? Not yet—which is likely not the desired effect.

Once we do get into the main story, there’s a feeling of clinical distance from the protagonist that robs the urgency and vibrancy of “Night Harrowing”. The unnamed narrator has a tendency to speak in generalities and not specific details, and that generality leaches colour and life from what she’s telling us.

There’s a sense of the interesting that could be shored up just by bringing that sense of specifics back into the narrative: she was home with her three-year-old daughter—what is the child’s name? She’d surely think of her own child by their name. On a weekday, a national holiday—which one? That detail would give us time, place, seasonality: what country “Night Harrowing” takes place in, at what time of year; it would establish temperature without ever having to ask. Suddenly, we would have a sense of place.

Which long-postponed tasks is she dealing with? That detail would give us, without asking, something of the shape of this person’s life and what pressures she’s under. Which toys is her kid playing with? That detail would tell us something about the personality her child has, what money this family has or doesn’t, what year it is.

There’s a wealth of information that can be fitted into “Night Harrowing” without adding any words, just swapping generalities for specifics, and turning a setup that’s currently abstract into one that’s concrete and real: our protagonist not a single mother, but this single mother, this person with a real story and real life who, for a short time, can be cared about.

In principle, what’s happening there would be working with how human—and therefore, reader!—brains work: giving us novelty and connection. We’re wired to find novelty interesting, and empathize with other people; when there are enough specific details to flesh a character into a lived life, readers can empathize; when something new to us happens, we’re attracted to the novelty—and those things are tools in keeping readers invested in a story. In short, making it interesting.

That leads into the other major question I’d suggest looking into with “Night Harrowing”: the plot logic itself, and how the story handles novelty. As it stands in the current draft, it’s somewhat abrupt: the supernatural rushes upon the protagonist “suddenly”, she loses her body and experiences a major and earthshaking detachment—but nothing in how the story’s told changes. When she loses her ability to go back to her earthly body it’s just as sudden, just as unexplained—and she’s just as incurious about it. The form of the story and how little she asks about these occurrences give readers the cue to not pay attention to this startling change; that it is routine, not important to the story as a whole, that readers should move on.

That incuriousness—the ways “Night Harrowing” itself is telling readers that its most major narrative turns aren’t actually important, so don’t ask about them—puts a significant damper on its ability to draw readers closer through their sense of novelty. Readers can take strong cues about how to feel about a story from the story itself. When the story itself is downplaying its most change-driving events, the space where there’s room to evoke the most readerly emotion, it’s undermining its own ability to work.

There’s a lot to like in “Night Harrowing” but, at present—and acknowledging the author’s note that says it knows well what it wants to be—it’s communicating to this reader as still very much in the idea phase, not yet sunk roots. The author’s notes communicate an overall sense that “Night Harrowing” already knows what’s interesting about itself—that it’s a settled question. What I think might be missing here is communicating that cohesively: as it stands, there are a few different messages going out on that point—the ones we’ve gone through above—and I think, having decided already what’s interesting in this story, if that could be conveyed with more unity, that would be a strong start for a revision.

But I’d like to make a suggestion: before looking at all the intermediate work, details and plot logic and so on, all the things which would make each element more interesting—what if the story just started with the most interesting part? Is there a wider, deeper, more curious story that happens when “Night Harrowing” doesn’t have to start with a teaser for the interesting bit, because the interesting bit is front and centre, and there’s no need for an apology that readers have to wait for it?

I think that, for an SFF readership, there’s significantly more work to be done in here than expected, but that it’s worthwhile work, and wish you the best of luck with it.

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

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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.

Beyond The Rings Of Imagination Chapters 15-18 by Heidi Wainer

There’s plenty of action in these chapters, with rapid pacing and escalating stakes for the characters and their hardware. Since this is a middle section of a longer story, and characters develop through the story, we’re seeing just a part of the larger picture. Still, I have a few suggestions for the next round of revisions.

Shara’s internal monologue contains a lot of rhetorical questions. Both the monologue and the questions can be effective ways of conveying a character’s inner life, but as with other rhetorical devices, a little goes a long way. Think about other ways to convey the information, though character action and interaction, through dialogue, or through brief bits of description or exposition.

Really good villains are hard to do. It’s all too tempting to amp up the evil without balancing it with hints of lesser horribleness. Sometimes the nasty goes over the top, with sneering and smirking and various other forms of mustache-twirling. Toning it down can, paradoxically, actually make the evil stronger, the way listeners will tune out a lot of yelling, but if you lower your voice, they’re more inclined to pay attention.

Korva makes some strides in that direction. She’s not completely awful to Shara. She clearly loves her son and her husband. Working more on this will make her even more interesting and complex, especially if her words and actions are more varied and more subtle. Rather than growling and snarling, glaring and cursing, calling Shara’s mother a whore and Shara a dirt kisser, how can she convey her anger and contempt in quieter, less obvious ways? If she’s even more ambivalent, if she shows even more flashes of positive as well as negative emotions and character traits, she becomes all the more interesting, and we learn more about what motivates her and why she acts the way she does.

One way to do this, and in fact to heighten character development generally, is to work on layering actions and emotions. There’s a lot of what I call unsupported dialogue. Characters speak, but often we don’t see how they react physically to what’s said, or in Shara’s case, how they feel about it. If her feelings are hinted at, they may be rather one-dimensional, a shrug or a dismissal when a stronger response might be indicated.

The more nuanced a character’s actions and feelings are, the more interesting it tends to be. It doesn’t have to be excessively complicated: a layer or two more of reaction, thought, emotion, makes the story deeper. If a character acts or moves, how does she do that? What emotion does the action convey?

Can we see an extra dimension of that movement? If she runs, does she run gracefully? Clumsily? Does she worry about tripping or falling, or enjoy her own grace and athleticism? Is there one additional thing we can sense as it happens, the feel of her suit against her skin, a smell, a taste?

It shouldn’t be a lot of details—too many will overwhelm the story. Just one or two that are just right at that particular moment, that give us a broader picture of the character and the scene, that let us see a little deeper into the world and the people in it.

Varying how a character reacts helps, too. Count the number of times a character does a particular thing—Korva’s growl, for example. What other things can she do instead? What else can both show her bad temper and hint at the reasons for it?

Each of these elements is small in itself, but they really add up. They add depth to the story and extra dimension to the characters. They resonate through the rest of the story, too, and can even show the way to new angles on the plot and the people who live inside it.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, Fantasy

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.

The Book of Margoleth, Chapter 1 by Meredith Asher

I love the voice of this submission. There are some wonderful lines, including the opening lines. I expected the setting to be quite a bit farther south than it was, but that might just be me reading too much Southern Gothic. And of course, True Blood. Eventually I did catch on to the ambience of the North Woods.

The author’s note asks about dividing up the submission into two chapters. I don’t think there’s any firm rule for chapter length, and this one could work as a unit, beginning with a routine vampire slaying and ending with Margo’s flight. If it would work better for the novel overall for this section to be two chapters, I think I would start Chapter 2 with “It was about a mile and a half to Margo and Bernice’s house.” It seems like a good place to begin, and the action picks up quickly from there.

I have a couple of questions, and some comments on structure and craft.

First I wonder if Margo should be as casual about the stranger as she is in this draft. Considering her upbringing and what she does basically for a living, would she be more suspicious of this weird, giggling apparent human? Would she take him in as easily as she does here? Is it possible she would sense that something is off, and be more wary and less accepting?

I wonder too if she protests a bit too much about her lack of esoteric education. Are her reasons strong enough? Could they be more complicated, too? Maybe something to do with her past, or her mother’s past? Some strong, compelling motive for keeping her away from her grandmother’s arts? A curse, a threat that maybe manifests in the stranger?

In terms of plot structure, this section has a solid flow. Margo is out hunting, Margo meets the stranger, the stranger attacks, Bernice deals with him and sends Margo away. In execution however, most of the narrative consists of Margo’s internal monologue, with blocks of exposition and backstory. Even action sequences stop for a detour through a memory, or for an explanation or a bit of history. The story stops and starts, rather than moving along smoothly from one scene to the next.

Paring down the monologue, focusing on information that is directly relevant to the particular scene, will help focus the narrative. So will reducing repetition. Presenting a piece of information once, in just the right place, will resonate through the whole chapter and, with a reminder here and there, through the rest of the novel. The more direct the action is, the fewer filters there are between it and the reader, the more immediate the reader’s experience becomes. It’s the difference between being told about an event, and living through it.

Margo’s characterization in general has a certain flatness to it. She acts and is acted upon, but the action is nearly all on the surface. When the stranger attacks her and drags her around, her internal monologue goes silent. There’s action but no reaction; we see what happens to her, but we don’t know what’s happening underneath. We aren’t shown how it feels.

In revision I would suggest pruning monologue and exposition, and in its place, adding layers of emotion. Let us feel as well as see and hear. Take us under Margo’s skin. Show us what it’s like to be Margo—inside, where her deeper self lives. Then the great lines will really stand out, and Margo’s narrative voice will be even more delightful than it already is.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, Horror

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.

In A Hurry by Michael Glaviano

The story generates a strong atmosphere around the old research tower, with the ancient elevator, flickering lights, and strange, chaotic lab.  The story has some very visual images, especially in the first half, so I almost experience this like a movie in my head.  The atmosphere makes me feel that strange, threatening things can happen in this place, which makes the ending believable.

The setting at the end, the staircase, reminds me some of the sub-basement in “The Rats in the Walls” by H. P. Lovecraft, with the implication that things get worse the deeper he goes.

I think the story has a strong idea and setting, but doesn’t yet have a plot or protagonist that maximizes the impact of the idea and setting.  Gordon is a hapless, distracted protagonist.  He does things without much thought, and that ends up dooming him.  While behaving thoughtlessly (or being in a hurry) can certainly lead to one’s doom, that doesn’t make a very strong plot in this case.  Gordon never seems to have a chance of success, because of who he is.  If he gave his immediate situation more thought and was a bit more on the ball, he might have a chance.  But that’s not who he is, so he doesn’t.  He’s basically a powerless victim in the story, which doesn’t make him a strong protagonist.  A protagonist needs to have some power/ability to affect events–he can have a lot of power or only a little, but he needs some.  I don’t see that Gordon has any.

That leaves me, at the end, feeling somewhat disturbed by the staircase, but it’s a distant, abstract feeling, because I’m not strongly connected to Gordon.  If Gordon were a horrible person and I had followed his horrible actions closely and formed a bond with him, then I could be happy at the end that he’s getting his comeuppance.  If Gordon were a good person and I had followed his struggles to do good closely and formed a bond with him, I could be upset and horrified that he’s trapped in such a situation at the end.  But because I’m watching Gordon from a distance, thinking how foolish he is not to listen to Philips and not to take more care in counting the floors, I don’t feel much of anything for him at the end.  Since this is a horror story, feeling nothing is not a good outcome.

He also, as far as he is aware, doesn’t have much at stake in the story until he realizes the nature of the staircase near the end.  That means he’s not really struggling strongly to achieve a goal and isn’t strongly engaged in what’s happening until near the end.  That means I don’t feel much engagement, suspense, or emotion.

I think a story with a protagonist who is too much in a hurry to notice what’s important might be more emotional and involving if the protagonist was very focused on achieving some goal (getting to an important meeting on time, for example) and was struggling against obstacles to achieve that goal so that we became very involved and rooting for him to make it to the meeting.  Then we would be caught up in the hurry also.  If the protagonist then drives through a yellow light and hits a pedestrian and kills that person, we would be devastated, because we were caught up in the same state of mind as the protagonist.  Those conditions aren’t being met in this story.  Gordon’s goal to get back to his office to work on a long-delayed project isn’t a very involving or urgent one; it’s not one we share; and his fate is more the product of the staircase than of his hurry.  We don’t know whether he would have been fine if he’d taken his time and counted the floors as directed, though I suspect not.  So I don’t think this plot fits well with the theme that being in a hurry can carry horrific consequences.

Looking at the other character, Philips seems pretty much the stereotypical eccentric scientist.  He doesn’t seem to do much in the story except provide us with a scientific reason for the staircase–that it’s an inter-dimensional portal of some kind.

One other character, the dean, is mentioned.

I think you could do much more with the characters to generate more emotion and involvement from readers and a more powerful plot.  For example, let’s say Philips and Gordon are both working on interdimensional connections, but doing so separately.  The dean is also a specialist in this area, but since his promotion, he’s stopped active research.  He still explores theory, though, and he’s developed a new theory of interdimensional connections.  Everyone in the research division knows he’s been working on this.  The story could open with Gordon in the dean’s office, fearing that he’s going to be fired because his research just led to a failed experiment, confirming that his last few years of work have been a total waste of time. He has tenure, so he doesn’t think he can get fired, but he could be demoted or moved out of the institute into a regular teaching job, a huge humiliation.  The dean has done this with researchers who haven’t produced–those researchers are transferred out and never heard from again.  Gordon’s goal is to not get transferred out of the institute.  The dean comments on the failure and asks Gordon to deliver a draft of the dean’s new theory to Philips immediately.  The dean says he was ready to share his breakthrough theory with Gordon if Gordon’s experiment had succeeded.  But since it didn’t, he’s sharing his theory with Philips. And if Gordon doesn’t show some progress soon, he might not have much of a future at the institute.

Gordon believes the dean wants to humiliate him, turning him into a delivery boy and having to face Philips in that capacity, as a failure.  The dean likes to play games.  Gordon takes the paper, which is sealed in an envelope.  He wonders if he could get into the envelope to read the theory before delivering it. His goal now is to learn the dean’s new theory.

The next scene could show Gordon going up in the elevator to see Philips and examining the envelope to see if it shows any signs of his tampering.  He opened the envelope and read the contents, but there was an unfamiliar symbol among the familiar ones, so he couldn’t understand it.  It seems almost like the separation from other dimensions vanishes if a certain condition is met.  But he doesn’t know what the certain condition is.

He gives the envelope to Philips, who seems like he might have noticed the tampering.  Gordon encourages him to open it and read it, hoping he’ll be able to engage Philips in conversation and learn about the unfamiliar symbol.  In the meantime, he’s trying to memorize the setup of Philips’s lab and figure out what kind of experiments he’s doing.

After Philips reads the theory, he seems to regard Gordon with new interest.  Gordon asks Philips out to coffee, but Philips says he’s too busy.  He asks Gordon if he’d like to participate in Philips’s research.  A research subject called in sick, and he doesn’t want to fall behind.  Gordon agrees, eager to learn about Philips’s experiments.

Philips shows Gordon moving images–like videos but not videos.  And they’re of Gordon doing things Gordon doesn’t remember doing.  In one, the dean is promoting Gordon to chief researcher.  In another, Gordon is selling computers at Best Buy.  As Gordon looks at each image, it radiates a weird light that gives him a strange feeling.  Gordon realizes he’s looking at himself in other dimensions.  Could he be a loser working at Best Buy in some dimension?  He tries to figure out how Philips has gotten these images.  One shows him opening the envelope, but the paper inside just says, “THIS IS A TEST.”  The images get weirder, with Gordon screaming, and in some he seems to be the tormentor and in some the tormented.  This leaves Gordon very unsettled.

Finally Gordon comes out and asks Philips to explain how he’s doing this, to tell him what the symbol means in the dean’s theory.  What is the factor that can make the separation between dimensions vanish?

Philips says it’s just your state of mind.  When you realize there is no difference between the dimensions, then the separation vanishes.

Gordon thinks this is Philips’s way of refusing to answer his question.  Philips is giving him a nonsense answer.  Gordon is furious and lets Philips know.  Philips asks if Gordon wants to hurt him.  Gordon says of course not.

Gordon heads for the elevator, and Philips tells him the call button doesn’t work; he’ll need to take the stairs.

In the staircase, Gordon thinks more about the images he saw.  He realizes that they were all him, that there is nothing inherently brilliant about him that would make him succeed in all dimensions.  He just got a lucky break with this position at the institute, and he may end up losing his position.  Some doors are locked, some open and show him dimensions in which he’s doing different things.  In some he’s a failure (in his estimation); in some he’s a success.  In some he is being tortured.  In some he is torturing.  He realizes that looking at the images has made the separation between dimensions vanish.  He rebels against the idea that there is no difference between the dimensions.  Of course there’s a difference.  He tries to convince himself of this–to believe he can be only the person he is now, not any of those others–to restore the separation between dimensions and be back in his own dimension.  He searches for the lobby door, to get back to his own dimension.  He goes down.  He hears the screams and curses and insane gibbering from below.  They are coming up the stairs.  He realizes he must choose a door.  He also realizes that the dean had sent him to Philips to be used in an experiment and discarded.  That’s probably what happened to the others who were “transferred” out of the institute.  He’s lost his precious position.  He finds the door to what looks like his dimension.  But now he knows what he faces there.  Failure.  He’s filled with shame and rage; maybe that’s what he is–a failure–in every dimension, whether he seems successful or not.  It’s not fair.  Why is Philips able to succeed while he is relegated to nothing?  The gibbering gets closer.  He goes down a flight, chooses the door where he is the torturer, and enters.

Anyway, that’s one possibility that would give Gordon strong goals he’s struggling to achieve, put more at stake, give him the power to affect what happens, take him through a character arc and epiphany, and require he make a difficult decision at the climax.  I think those things will make readers more engaged, increasing the intensity of the suspense and emotions they feel.

The story has some well-chosen details, and I really enjoy the images, such as the infinite staircase.  The atmosphere is very strong.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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.

Medon by Bill S.

The hushed, spun-out, precise prose of “Medon” is what caught my attention this month—and inside just one sentence. Beautifully written, incredibly observed, tonal and subtle, there’s masterful sentence-level work going on in this piece, but sometimes the aspects of our craft strong enough to carry a story can veil what has room for further work, and I think that’s at the core of the author’s question: why “Medon” is getting second reads, but no acceptances yet. This month, I’d like to discuss looking at other aspects of craft on a story when reaching excellence on one of them isn’t getting the result, and how we build the understructures that make a story operating on dreamlike logic work.

I can immediately see what’s garnered this piece some second reads at magazines (as per the author’s notes!): “Medon” establishes atmosphere and tone in the very first sentence. The word choice in that one line does so much work, from picking slightly inobvious and non-aggressive verbs (paddled, pulled, dipping) to set an emotional mood, to the intense alliteration within the sentence (paddled pulling pale paddles) that stitches it all together and connects it to the next (swollen steady say surgeon), as well as the animacy of the imagery (waters that are swollen, trees with limbs, blades that are paletiny hands, open mouth). The rhythm of it reminds me of a Nick Cave song, of Virginia Woolf—of a certain type of early 20th century modernist British literature—and all the connotations of that time and place come with it: a sense of shimmering, terrible, beautiful impermanence.

That is an incredible amount of work being done in one line, in a first line, and conflict, place, and cast are established just as quietly and quickly before the first paragraph is done. And that work stays consistent through the piece. Overall, the writing here is absolutely stellar: it’s rhythmic, specific, textured, made of sound, and every hitch in its diction unveils an emotion. It forces me to read “Medon” slow enough to savour, to spend time with every line.

If “Medon” hasn’t found a home yet, it’s because of something other than the sentence-level writing, and when we’re not sure what’s causing friction between a story and editors, it’s worthwhile to take a subtractive approach: eliminate what we know is working and then read the story with every other element of craft in mind, to see which one gives us the mental hitch of something that has room for improvement. As a reader, I should be able to peel away that beautiful prose and still find a solid and cohesive story world, characters with internal logic, a plot that has beats and develops causally and pays off into results that matter, thematics with something to say. It’s when one of those engines isn’t firing quite on full that stories, I think, hit second reads and then rejections.

When I peeled away the prose itself, a few points stood out to me as potential sites for work, and the major one was plot logic and narrative motion. The prose draws me through “Medon” so effectively that it’s easy to not notice how major plot points have not been set up until they’re upon me, and feel abrupt and unsatisfying because that information isn’t within a cycle of setup-and-payoff. Dreamlike fiction definitely relies on mood, pace, and aesthetic, but reader-brains still find the same things in a story satisfying: setup and resolution, tension and payoff. The atmosphere of a story like “Medon” is gorgeous, but it’s useful to think of it as the skin, and it won’t move unless there are solid narrative mechanics underneath, muscles and bones, to make it walk. The trick is to create a sense of tension and payoff underneath that sense of dream-logic, so the story feels both strange and eerie but also inherently satisfying and solid. It’s not so much skimping on one’s plotting work as covering it over and expressing it in different ways.

With “Medon”, I think that understructure isn’t quite complete, and the abruptness of how key information (the dreams, the voice) is deployed is just one way that expresses itself; a patch of slow pacing around the walk through the woods toward Medon is another, because we are still moving, but nothing is narratively progressing yet, nothing is paying off at a point in a piece when it would be appropriate to drop the first few narrative dominoes and have them set off the next. The turn to finding Medon is abrupt, the connection between the flashback and what the old man transforms into still tenuous-feeling, the twist into a mission of revenge startling and oddly out of place given the tone the rest of the story created. And—I’m not sure that’s a goal that really lives up to the fine-grained attention the rest of the story’s putting out there. It’s fairly archetypical; it feels out of character. It’s an easy answer and everything else in this piece has led me as a reader to expect more complex ones—again, this is a question of satisfaction, setup and payoff. What have I as a reader been led to expect, and am I getting it?

Ultimately, I was left asking: What is actually happening here, on a barest plot level, and why is it satisfying to me as a reader and important to these characters? and that’s diagnostic of a plotting question still to be resolved.

What I’d suggest, in the face of that, is a serious and thoroughly thought-out redraft that approaches those questions head-on, run through the filter of what’s being set up, what’s being paid off in every scene. There’s so much thought being put into certain aspects of “Medon”; I’d love to see what it becomes if that much thought is applied to other aspects too, and the somewhat thinner logic of the archetypical rich people on high ground with guns, mysterious kissing knowledge, and revenge gets the attention, care, and complexity of a voice made of orchestra and bees; of wind, water, grass.

This is a lot of work—take this story apart, and then put it back together—but I think if you really step back, look at every element of craft, and think about what this story is and how each part of it can be strong in its own right to support the others, how each element of craft in “Medon” interacts, it’ll be very possible to give this story a sense of plotting and pacing that supports that prose so firmly that the entire piece is luminous. I think the story is very much worth that work.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, Fantasy

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.

Hoarded Thoughts Chapter 1 by Michael Curl

I had a lot of fun with this submission. It’s an unusual setup and an equally unusual set of characters. I do wonder if 15,000 words will be enough to tell the whole story, but would need to see more of the chapter to get a fuller sense of the shape and scope of the plot.

One big question I have is how the ogre manages to have both male and female halves. There’s one reference to magic, but I want a bit more. Are all ogres constructed like this, or is this one unique? How and why would a god fuse two individuals together in this way? It’s complicated for them to move, but it also forces cooperation, which might be a cosmic lesson. I’d love to know the story that goes with the nifty idea.

How that story unfolds is important. A block of exposition at the beginning can be hard for a reader to get over. Maybe there could be hints, a gradual revelation. And maybe the ogres’ condition plays a part in the development of the plot—not just in how they function, but why they’re the way they are. And that might be important to the outcome of the story.

I’d like to know, too, why the female is apparently of low intelligence and the male is much more advanced in his thought processes. That might get a bit complicated in the current social and cultural climate. Is she in fact as intelligent as he is, but equally unable to express her thoughts? If so, and if they’re mutually telepathic, wouldn’t he know this? And wouldn’t we be able to see, through him, that her inner life is so much different than her outer one? Even though he’s hoarding thoughts, might he still be able to read hers? How does it all work?

This might be addressed later on in the story, of course. I’m just noting what comes to mind as I read this opening section. There’s no need to front-load it all; in fact, a little mystery and suspense is a good thing. It keeps the reader turning pages, eager to find out if her questions have answers.

If this were my story, I’d focus on these larger issues first, and save the line edits for a later stage. That would be the time to smooth out the tone and the emotional affect. There are lovely bits of description, and glimpses of a grander or darker atmosphere. If that’s the direction the story wants to take, the seeds are there. This version however still leans a bit more toward the lighter side of fantasy: an ongoing sense of almost slapstick in the way the twofold ogre moves, for example.

When the worldbuilding is more developed and the tone is clearer in the author’s mind, I would suggest a really good, close edit, word for word and phrase for phrase. I quite like some of the language, such images as

The words were clear as mountain water inside his head, but on his tongue they sounded muddy.

I might use a different verb than sounded, but the rest is lovely. And this:

Jal loved how stupid humans made their animals.

It’s an unusual insight into the mind of an ogre. Pretty up-to-date science in this world, too, which gives it a nice double resonance.

Sometimes however, the phrasing strains a bit. Watch out for awkward phrasing:

Jal moved his head with big heavy nods

This is an odd use of the word nod, and odd phrasing.

He waited a second to feel her shoulder rise, But instead of pushing themselves off their back as a human would do, they turned their heads to face, the ground, and knuckle-walked like a gorilla into the orchard.

Check the punctuation and capitalization, and work on the way in which both the characters and their actions are described. I had trouble visualizing this, despite earlier descriptions of how they’re constructed. I found myself wanting more clarity, and more precision in the phrasing and the imagery.

Keep an eye on the figures of speech, too. Here’s a mixed metaphor:

their wide trumpet ears scanning the darkness like owl eyes

Trumpets are both a visual and an auditory image, and that works for ears (to me it suggests Shrek—which may be something to ponder when refining the tone of the story). The switch to the visual image of owl eyes is a bit disconcerting. Is there another image that would fit ears and sounds, and convey a similar effect?

The main thing to aim for is to keep the reader reading. If she has to stop and figure out what a particular passage is trying to say, she loses track of the narrative. The clearer the prose is, the easier the story is to follow. Then she’ll stay with it all the way to the end.

–Judith Tarr