Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, 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.

Eye Of The Beholder by Kathryn Jankowski

This horror/mystery story has a well-drawn historical setting.  With vivid, convincing details and a strong period voice, we’re immersed in the world of San Francisco, 1923.  The opening draws me in with its close description of the most recent victim of the killer.  For me, the heart of the story and the most appealing part of it is the relationship between Inspector Falcone and his daughter, Alessandra.  The relationship feels real and warm.

I think some of the other elements could be strengthened, particularly the plot and character arcs.  The plot has several weaknesses.  Each scene should show a change to a value of significance for the main character of that scene.  That’s how a writer can check to see if the scene is actually moving the story ahead and earning its place.  For example, in the third scene, Alessandra goes from wanting her father’s permission to attend the ball to getting her father’s permission to attend the ball.  This is a major change to something that Alessandra values.

The second scene, in contrary, shows no such change.  Alessandra seems excited about the invitation from the beginning of the scene and remains excited about it at the end.  The scene mainly serves to provide exposition (background information) as Alessandra thinks about the Conte who sent the invitation, about her life, about her status, and about her chances of getting a dance with the Conte.  This is a common weakness in the work of developing writers–the scene in which nothing of significance changes that serves mainly to establish the status quo, often through a lot of exposition, in which the character, alone, thinks about her life.

The first scene has a similar problem.  Most of the scene involves exposition, as Falcone, primarily alone, thinks about the facts of the case.  A little something of significance changes in the scene, since Falcone gets a description from the Italian, but it doesn’t seem very important to Falcone.  So these scenes are not serving the story as well as they might.

Once the father and daughter get together and start to interact, the scenes become stronger.  My advice is to consider putting the father and daughter together from the beginning.  This would allow more room in the story to develop their characters and relationship, and it would allow much of the exposition to be revealed through the actions and dialogue of the characters rather than through a lot of thought.  One big challenge for writers is finding ways to externalize the internal.  The first two scenes need to become more external, to have less exposition and more forward action, and to have something stronger of significance changing.  These can all work together.

Before I go into some specific suggestions, let me briefly discuss the character arcs, the other area I said could be improved.  Falcone and Alessandra don’t really seem to change over the course of the story, and thus their relationship doesn’t change.  Alessandra seems to solve the case out of desperation and a moment of insight, not because she has changed as a person at all, so the solution seems kind of manipulated by the author, who puts a lot of clues in front of Alessandra and then makes her put them together.  I don’t feel a strong reason why she puts them together or is able to do so.  The ending, which should feel both surprising and inevitable, does not feel inevitable.  I could just as easily imagine the Conte gets the better of her before she can use her mirror on him.  Similarly, Alessandra’s transformation into a basilisk at the end does not feel inevitable.  It feels like the author wanted to throw in a twist.  The climax and denouement would work better if Alessandra had characteristics and a character arc that made this outcome seem more inevitable.

Now I’ll return to discussing the opening two scenes while keeping possible character arcs in mind.  Perhaps Falcone drops his daughter off at school every morning.  But this morning, he must stop to examine the latest victim of the killer.  So Alessandra is with him as the story opens.  He could ask her to stay in the carriage, but she could come out and examine the corpse, using her medical knowledge to provide some insight.  Since she doesn’t know all the facts of the other murders, she could question her father, and he could answer, and that way, the reader could receive the exposition, but it would be revealed in a more lively, external way through this conversation.  You could also mix conflict into the scene.  Perhaps Alessandra resents her father making this stop before dropping her off.  Maybe she has a test or something important at school and feels he doesn’t value her education.  Maybe her mother always felt she took second place to his work.  Falcone might ask her to come out of the carriage and look at the wound on the throat and give her opinion.  Once she sees the dead woman and the wound, she gets involved, and we see how similar father and daughter are at heart.  This could also set up a character arc of Alessandra overcoming her resentment of her father and becoming more concerned about people other than herself (as her father is), and a relationship arc as the father and daughter become closer over the course of the story.

Alessandra might still resent her father and his work at the end of the first scene.  When he insisted on staying and questioning people, this caused her to miss her event at school entirely.  But perhaps Alessandra contributed some new piece of information the father didn’t know–something about hemlock or strychnine–and the father now realizes the value of having someone with medical knowledge at his side during the investigation.  This would be a change to something that the father values.  He was stuck working this case alone; now he sees perhaps a way that he can have a breakthrough working with his daughter.

Perhaps when Alessandra returns from school that night, she has found out some more about the chemical that might have been used by the killer, and now she might want to get more involved.  She could suggest the party as a way for them to investigate together.  At the party, she might detect something in her drink and try to get the drink out of the party to test it, but the Conte stops her.  There are many possibilities, but through something like this you could show Alessandra changing and coming closer to the solution of the mystery, rather than having it all hit her at once.

I don’t know if having her transform into a basilisk is the right ending.  She seems to simply be a victim there, not a protagonist pursuing a goal that led to an unforeseen consequence.  It’s not clear to me why this is her inevitable destiny.  The answer to whether that’s the right ending will come once her character arc is more developed.

Developing the characters and their relationship more will give readers something else to pay attention to rather than just the mystery, and readers may become more engaged with and concerned about the characters.   If we see the father and daughter growing closer through this investigation, then it could be particularly tragic to see the daughter transforming at the end.

I find the setting and voice very strong and enjoy the interaction of the father and daughter.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, 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.

The Earthly Garden by Christi Nogle

“The Earthly Garden” caught my attention this month with its slow feeling of the uncanny and interestingly unconventional narrative. I did find myself tangled, though, in the amount of plot elements left to subtext—while finding other uses of that same tool deeply, deeply effective. So this month, I’d like to discuss the kind of vagueness that lets readers fill in the gaps versus the kind of vagueness that prevents them from doing so, and how to make sure we’re providing the variety that lets readers into the story.

“The Earthly Garden” sets a scene and web of relationships quickly and with real ease: a mother who accepts her kid despite not really noticing him in many ways, a child who’s stranger than we think. There are real beautiful details here that pull more than their weight in illuminating the characters—I especially liked the architectural plans for houses that break all the rules, and the throwaway line in Part 2 about how Jeremy does in fact like all the beers.

That’s paired with some smart structural instincts: “The Earthly Garden” takes its story about a living triptych and renders it in a literal triptych: three points of view, three sections, each daisy-chaining readers through the narrative. There’s a huge amount of resonance built up just with that narrative choice, and that resonance pays off when the triptych is actually revealed and symbols recognized from earlier in the story.

However, clarity is a core issue in “The Earthly Garden”—the one that I think needs the most attention if this piece is going to reach its full potential.

I don’t think it’s required of us, especially in a piece that’s supposed to have the air of awe and mystery, to completely nail down on the page precisely what has happened here. However, there are tangible ways in which readers frequently pick up on whether the plot action and thematics have been thought through in a story, and the major driver of that effect is consistency: even if the real narrative is obscured or not visible to readers, do all the characters—and the world of the story—act and react in a way that is consistent to that narrative? Or, to use an example: even if the road we’re walking on is invisible because it’s covered in snow, is everyone in the area walking along the same straight line?

I’m not certain everyone in “The Earthly Garden” is walking the same straight line—or if so, they’re walking it lightly enough that the footprints are difficult to pick up in the snow. Certain connections are implied very lightly, and aren’t quite making it to the page. For example, the connection between Stephan’s “I hear a drink makes me real entertaining” comment in Part 1 and the party when he gets the idea for the triptych and all his friends disappear feels somewhat half-emerged; it could be pointing in any of three or four directions, and which direction it points in matters for our understanding of the triptych and what happens to Audrey by the end.

Likewise, the same issue is arising with the goosebumps on Stephan’s forearm in Part 2 and what they prefigure, the undulation the Part 3 narrator looks away from and what that might mean for that character, that relationship, and the story itself, and even the question of whether Audrey is Stephan’s daughter. The hair being similar is a clue, but perhaps not enough of one, and we can’t pull the information from who the narrator of Part 3 might be. Stephan’s girlfriend is mentioned as a character off the page in Part 2, but we never meet here, never have a name or characteristics to recognize (or not!) in Part 3, never have a hint that there’s a child in the picture. It becomes a guessing game, which in the third act of a story presents more of an obstacle for readers than an intriguing mystery.

The image at the end—the coat, and the hair—is powerful, but it feels as if it cuts off somewhat abruptly; as if the pieces that would have made it fully meaningful haven’t quite come together or are too obscured to click. The ultimate consequence of the vague air of “The Earthly Garden” is that its final symbol is never quite set up; a moment that should be full of meaning isn’t quite meaningful, even though I can feel the ghost of the significance that should be there.

There’s another tangible consequence that may be emerging. I’m left unsure whether Stephan’s childhood behaviours are meant to evoke autism symptoms—specifically the echolalia and hair-rubbing, which I read as a stim—and if so, if they’re meant to be deliberately tied to Stephan’s overclocked brain, resulting genius, and loneliness.  If so, I’d be very careful about using that depiction—it’s a depiction with consequences, and clarity is especially important when depicting people in ways that could be harmful. There’s a lot of good reading out there about why the Magical Neurodiverse Person archetype is damaging to the very real, human people who are neurodiverse; I’d recommend starting with Ada Hoffmann’s Autistic Book Party reviews.

While the implication or absence of certain kinds of information can be a tool to pull readers into deeper engagement with a story—the puzzles we solve ourselves are always more compelling than the answers spelled out for us—it’s worth considering which aspects of a story we want to single out for use as puzzles. I’ve found it worthwhile to model a story as a person, standing on the edge of a cliff: which aspects of the story are the leg that’s on firm, clear ground, and which ones are the leg that’s over thin air? Without the leg on the ground—half the story clearly spelled out, regardless of which audience this is aimed at—it’s very easy for a piece to lose its balance.

My main suggestion, therefore, would be to do some serious thinking about the architecture of “The Earthly Garden”: what’s made clear to readers, and what’s obscured—and what goal clarifying or obscuring each piece of information serves. Depending on what the reveal of the piece is supposed to be, it’s plausible to create a road (snow-covered or not!) toward that reveal by clarifying the information that makes people wander off that road toward other theories of what the story is about and pointing the obscured clues in the story in the same direction, so that readers can follow them to the logical conclusion.

This is careful structural work, and will likely take time; I’d caution to not be discouraged if it takes a few drafts and tries to achieve the best effect.

Otherwise, on the prose level, I’d suggest looking at hedge words. There are a lot of sentences that are being diluted by the little markers of uncertainty: I suppose, like, sort of. While there’s a real use for these in demarcating the voice of a narrator who’s less certain, or more apologetic, about putting forward an opinion from a character who isn’t, they seemed to be showing up consistently throughout the piece and not as a voice tool. I’d suggest pruning those words back—or, more interestingly, making them a marker of one of those voices, and using them to distinguish one of the story’s three narrators.

“The Earthly Garden” has a lot going for it: an evocative and intriguing atmosphere, an unconventional narrative, a structure that mirrors its thematics and plot elements well, and prose that complements its quiet with observant and evocative turns of phrase. With a little more consideration, deliberation, and work on its specificity—ensuring that the uncertainties it creates are places for readers to connect with, rather than be unsure about—this piece can really shine.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, 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.

The Sea Above by Crystal Sarakas

I love the title of this piece, and the concept is lovely. I like the protagonist, too, and her relationship with the AI which has clearly achieved sentience (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).

But of course I have questions. Editors always have questions. It’s a flaw in our character.

The main question I keep coming back to is the difference between the pacing of a novel and that of a short story. Every word in a novel has to count, just as in a shorter work, but a novel allows more space: more digressions, more characters and subplots, a more leisurely progression of events from opening to conclusion. A short story on the other hand needs to be compact and tightly focused. Fewer characters (though many more can be left to implication), far fewer scenes and events, and a fairly narrow range of ideas. A story will generally try to hone in on a single idea, and the structure and pacing of the story revolves around that idea.

In “The Sea Above,” the idea is clear: a world in ecological collapse, in which humanity has been forced to take to the sea, and a character who dreams of trees. This has the resonance of a poem, and at under 6000 words, aims at the focus of a short story.

The pacing however is closer to that of a novel. Vale begins with a reflection on her dream of green things, segues into elements of worldbuilding—where she is, how she happens to be unable to leave her own room–which allows the introduction of Xavier. There is more worldbuilding as she gets ready to go out, we meet the AI which has more or less named itself Hans, then Xavier and Vale, conversing on various topics, make their way through an essentially unpopulated space to the morning work meeting.

The pacing is leisurely. Conversation repeats itself as Vale tells Xavier what Hans has said to her, or explains why she’s saying a particular thing to Hans. We follow the characters step by step, until they arrive in a populated space, where we’re told everyone is in some form of turmoil. Vale and Xavier speculate as to the cause of that turmoil, then tell each other how they’re going to learn what it’s really about.

At this point, Hans speaks to Vale, and Xavier makes it clear he’s been spoken to as well; then there’s a public announcement. They’ve been summoned to a briefing, which is described in detail, point for point, with commentary on various personalities including Silva, with whom Vale is not friends. There has been an earthquake, and buildings have collapsed.

This both is and is not a crisis. Vale is part of one of the teams sent out to survey the damage, but the tone is calm and there’s no sense of urgency. At the end of the scene, Vale pauses to drink in the scenery, and to explain to Hans what she’s doing and why. And then the story jumps ahead several weeks during which Vale tells us she’s had panic attacks, but the tone remains low-key.

In this new section, after weeks of doing the same thing day after day, with more collapses and ongoing crises, Vale and Xavier discuss her idea of scanning an area of cliffs for signs of further collapse. They agree it’s a good idea. Turns out command agrees, too. They take a novice diver with them, as they did in the previous scene, and there’s discussion of turning the expedition into a hunt for food.

Suddenly they encounter a school of fish. The novice wanders off into the school, just as predators attack. With the help of Hans, Vale and Xavier barely escape, to find themselves trapped in a cave. Vale panics, Hans talks her through it, she finds a way out—and finds her dream: land, and green.

The end is lovely, and circles nicely back around to the beginning. What’s in between tends to work in triads: actions, interactions, and worldbuilding details are presented in threes. For example, Hans will speak to Vale, Vale will tell Xavier what it said, then Xavier will say he’s heard the same thing. Likewise, a thing will happen, Vale and Xavier will speculate as to why, then we’ll be told what happened and why. In the final scene, Hans tells Vale what’s going on, Vale repeats the data with her own emotional overlay, then Hans tries to soothe and calm her.

The pacing, with its triple loops and its use of dialogue and speech as exposition, as well as the time-frame of weeks and the downplaying of the extent of the crisis, feels more novel-like than short-story-like. I love details of worldbuilding, and love the sense of there being a fully realized world beneath the framework of the story, but when the story is short, I look for a clear line from beginning to end: the sense that the story is aiming at a single, distinct point.

What seems to be happening here is a focus on precise details of worldbuilding and character development, but those details tend to wander away from the point, which is that the earthquakes and collapses must be related in some way to the reemergence of land. The land that Vale finds has been above water for some time, long enough to grow trees—which means the immediate crisis in the underwater city is actually of considerable duration. I find myself looking for a clearer sense of a precipitating event, some more distinct and focused line of storytelling that takes us from Vale’s dream to its fulfillment.

I also feel as if the plotting could be more focused and streamlined. For example, both dives involve the same mix of people (and an AI): Vale, Xavier, a novice, and Hans. What if those dives were combined? Do they both need to exist, or can they take place in a single scene that establishes the job the characters are doing, runs them into the fish and the squid, and ends up in the open air? That way, the story is tighter and the point comes through more clearly, with plenty of worldbuilding, action, and personal stakes.

The story can move along more quickly in general. At the beginning, do Vale and Xavier need to take so long to get to the central gathering point? Can this scene be much shorter while conveying the same essential information? When they arrive at the briefing, might this be condensed and focused so that we get a clearer sense of how the earthquakes are increasing in number and the city is in real danger? Can Vale’s dive be shown to be more crucial, with higher stakes? It can begin as routine–or as routine as scanning for actual and potential disaster can be (and is anyone thinking about how to fix things?)–but then it can, and in story terms should, evolve into anything but.

While we’re talking about condensing and tightening, is Silva an essential character? When he was introduced, I thought he would play a role in the story, serve as an antagonist, or as a catalyst for an event that drives the story forward. I would expect that, for example, he would do something to drive the divers toward the squid, or be the wandering character who gets lost, but in searching for him, Vale and company find the cave and the land.

That’s the difference between a novel and a short story, right there. Every character in a short piece has to earn his keep. If he’s introduced, he has a role to play. In a novel he might be a peripheral annoyance, an ongoing irritant, but at this length, with the number of words devoted to him, the expectation is that he’ll be a driver of the story in some significant way.

I like this story a great deal, and find the setting memorable and compelling. If the plotting can clarify and focus itself, and the repetitions of details and actions be pared down, I think it will be really strong, powerful and moving.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, 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.

Wind/Water/Salt Chapter 1 by Robyn Hamilton

This is my first experience of Bucklepunk, which I didn’t even realize was a thing, and I’m intrigued. Now I want to know all about it. What’s the tipping point from our own timeline? How does the concept of electricity develop so early? What about–?

So here we have the first chapter of a 45-chapter Bucklepunk novel. I’m caught up enough in it that I want to read on. I do agree with the author’s comment that switching viewpoints is a good thing, but it might get too rigid, and possibly confusing, if it happens with every chapter. A more flexible structure might work better: either a main story line as told by Abigail (or another central protagonist) with others chiming in as indicated, or a fairly freeform switching of narrators according to the needs of the story.

However that turns out, this first chapter manages to establish two strong characters. Abigail womans the viewpoint camera, of course, but Susannah has plenty to do and say. It’s a good start.

I have some questions about the draft, both larger issues and down to the sentence level. First, going back to the author’s note: I get a basic picture of the relationship between the two characters, and the overall emotional arc they transcribe in the chapter, but I think it needs more.

It’s an opening chapter, of course, with 44 more to go; it’s a snippet, therefore, and not an entire, fully developed construct. But it’s still possible to get a sense of who these people are and where they’re headed in relation to each other.

I’m rather taken with the absolute deadpan of Susannah’s reaction to the dead cat—it’s a very kid thing, to be utterly without sentimentality—but at the same time, there’s a bit of flatness in the emotional landscape overall. I keep looking for more resonance, more depth in how they feel about each other. It’s not that we need the prose to turn purple or the emotions to go over the top; it’s just that I’d like to get a clearer view of what’s happening below the surface of what they do and say. Abigail has a tendency to dismiss things that ought to really bother her: “at least they were out of town, so no one could see;” the devastation isn’t such a big deal after all, because Abigail doesn’t have a carriage, and anyway, nobody ever visits. It feels as if all of this is rationalization, and undercuts the extent of the damage as well as her reactions to it.

That bit of flatness extends through the chapter. As I said, Susannah’s deadpan about the cat—her fascination with the forms and consequences of its death—is convincing, but there’s another layer or two that might be worked in, about how they’ve lost the demon on whom at least some of their magic depends.

This is a crisis on many levels. I think we could see a few more of those levels, and Abigail could be more deeply perturbed than she is. She starts off by saying it’s “just a cat,” but in fact it’s a great deal more than that. Is she trying to keep Susannah from panicking, is she in denial herself, or…?

In this context, Susannah’s lack of emotion could be developed as a defense mechanism. She clearly loves animals and has named the squirrel. Did she name the cat? If not, why not? Was she afraid of it? Did she hate it because there was a demon in it? What underlies her actions as she fiddles with the corpse?

It doesn’t need to be much. A line would do it, if it’s the right line. Just enough to convey that there’s more to what she does and says than meets the eye.

Abigail as the viewpoint character allows more penetration into her thought processes, but she could go a little deeper, too. More complexity, more layers and levels of feeling (or lack thereof).

I was a bit puzzled as to why she’s as awkward as she is when she attempts to summon the demon to a new body. It seems that she doesn’t totally understand how the demon/familiar connection works, she’s not completely capable of sensing when the demon enters the body, and her command of the basics—including the wand—isn’t what one might expect of an experienced and capable witch.

Is Abigail meant to be this way? Is her lack of competence deliberate? Is she basically an amateur playing at spells and powers that she doesn’t truly understand, and is this a key plot point? Or are her failures more deep and disturbing, in that she’s actually a master but her skills are failing her? I think it could be clearer where she stands on these issues, even if the author would like to leave questions and mysteries for later chapters.

These are larger concepts that might be resolved as the story proceeds, but there are smaller aspects of technique and phrasing that show up right here in the draft. The author’s note asks whether the setting works. Overall I think it does. We get the storm, the devastation, the general layout of the property.

Sentence by sentence however, I think the chapter might work better if the elements of setting, the order of description and the specifics of detail were reorganized a bit. The fixation on the familiar almost makes sense, but as Abigail takes stock, she jumps around from place to place and from element to element. A smoother pan of the viewpoint-camera, and a better sense of priorities (from most to least awful, or vice versa depending on the effect desired), would make the overall picture more effective and affecting.

A good and up-front example of this happens at the very beginning. The organization of actions and ideas doesn’t quite flow. First we have a flashback to Abigail telling Susannah to stay in the shed—without further reference, and with no reprimand for disobedience. Then we have Susannah coming out of the shed, and we’re told that’s where they both spent the night. It might make more sense to spell that out in the opening, and also clarify where Abigail is, so we have the scene blocked right up front—and if it is crucial that Abigail forbade Susannah to come outside, then Abigail will address that at this point. Then the conversation can proceed, with Susannah continuing to be willful and Abigail investigating the dead cat.

In fact I wonder whether Susannah’s question about the smell should be the first line. It’s a Rule in some quarters not to begin a novel or chapter with a line of dialogue, but this line is sharp, pointed, and begs the reader to keep going to find out the answer. Susannah asks about the smell as she comes out of the shed where they spent the night, perhaps Abigail shoots her a Look for not doing as she’s told, but the lost familiar so preoccupies her that she doesn’t have room in her head for anything else right now (though later may be an entirely different proposition).

One last thing that might help the reader to understand the stakes and the difficulty here: what exactly does the familiar do, that makes its loss such a catastrophe? Is there one thing that Abigail absolutely needs, that only the familiar can provide? I like the idea that Abigail has provided cover by making familiars a fad, it’s clever and wicked and tells me a great deal about Abigail, but I’d like to understand what a familiar is. Then I’ll be that much clearer about what’s going on and why it matters.

Best of luck with this. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ll be interested to see how the story unfolds.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, 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.

Dialogue With Death by Tony Valiulis

As a physicist turned writer, I found this story about a physicist turned writer (and serial killer) irresistible.  But it has much more to offer than that.  Many, many stories have been written in which death appears as a character.   That means any new story using this conceit needs to offer some fresh perspective or element.  “Dialogue with Death” offers several fresh elements that draw me in.  First, death is not some omniscient, immortal being.  Instead, death is specifically one person’s death, in this case, Lane’s.  This death came into being at a certain point in Lane’s life and will probably cease to exist when Lane does.  Second, death is able to design Lane’s death using Lane’s particular interests and fears.  And since Lane is obsessed with physics and philosophy and meaning, his death is unique.

Many stories have also been written about serial killers.  But here, also, the story has something fresh to offer.  Lane’s failed search for the meaning of life in physics led him to find a purpose in life by killing.  He doesn’t really care who he kills or how; it’s just something he does once a year to provide meaning for himself.

The story also has some vivid description, as in the second paragraph.

I do think the story could be strengthened in several ways.  The story mainly serves to reveal its underlying idea:  that death has created a uniquely horrifying fate for Lane.  Lane is on the verge of death at the start of the story, and various visions and flashbacks interrupt his dialogue with death.  This type of structure is different than a traditional structure in which the protagonist is struggling to achieve a goal.  Lane doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve anything; he seems like death’s victim, powerless over his thoughts or fate.  In such a structure, it’s important to limit those visions and flashbacks to the minimum number necessary to set up the ending.  I think several of these aren’t necessary to set up the ending and could be cut.  For example, Keegan seems to have no effect on Lane’s fate.  She seems to come into Lane’s life and exit his life rather randomly.  Whenever events feel random, not part of a causal chain, they seem manipulated by the author.  So that’s how Keegan felt.   I understand that she represents Lane’s chance to change, but then neither Lane nor death thinks he would have changed, and her presence in his life has nothing to do with his final fate, so her scenes aren’t pulling their weight in the story.  I think with a story like this, the shorter you can make it, the more power the end will carry.

The story also seems wordy at times, so more length could be cut by eliminating that.  For example, the last six paragraphs of the fourth scene (starting “That these same theories . . .”) seem to be belaboring some ideas that the story has previously established quite well.  I think you could cut the length of that section by 50% at least.  Similarly, in the eighth scene, there’s a section of five paragraphs beginning “Lane shook his head and rolled his shoulders” that I think could be cut by about 70%.  I found my interest in the story declining the longer I read, because the story seemed to bounce back and forth between flashbacks and conversations with death too much, and some scenes didn’t seem to contribute a lot.

I’d love to see some of the most intriguing aspects of the idea developed more.  I’m fascinated by the fact that death came to awareness because of Lane’s murders.  It seems that people who don’t commit horrible acts have no personal “death” who decides their fate but simply pass into eternal peace.  If that’s the case, what does it take to create a death?  Most people are guilty of some bad act.  Does this only happen with murder?   Does this mean there is some moral force controlling the afterlife?  I think Lane would wonder about this.

I was constantly thrown off by the omniscient point of view.  We spend time in Lane’s head (“His mind wandered,” “Lane could see an image”), time outside of Lane looking at him and commenting on him (“his lips curling into something between a sneer and a smile,” “Lane was 35,” “It gave Professor Lane’s life meaning”), and time outside of both Lane and death (“death’s face darkened, momentarily became almost skeletal”).  In an omniscient POV, you can do all of these things, but moving between them needs to be done gradually and smoothly, so the reader is not jarred and distracted.  Instead of gradually transitioning from inside Lane to outside Lane to inside the omniscient narrator’s perspective, the POV often seemed to jump from one to the other, leaving me confused and disoriented.

Finally, while I like the idea of Lane being relegated to a physics-related eternal limbo, there are two things about his fate that don’t make sense to me.  First, looking at the science, when someone (say Lane) is traveling near or at the speed of light, time slows down for Lane only relative to the observations of someone else (say death).  Lane, traveling at c, would experience time as moving forward normally.  It would be only death, watching Lane, who would see Lane seemingly moving infinitely slowly.  So Lane would not be trapped in a moment as the story describes.  At least, that’s the way I see it.

The second part of his fate that doesn’t make sense to me is why death chose it.  I understand using physics and a unified field theory against Lane, which is a nice idea, but why is a numb limbo the worst fate for Lane?  I would think being in horrible pain for eternity would be worse.  If Lane hated boredom and sameness, then a numb limbo would be an appropriate punishment.  But that doesn’t seem to be Lane’s issue.  If you could tie his death to making his life meaningless, that would seem a more appropriate fate.

I really enjoy the underpinnings of physics and philosophy, and the fresh elements you’ve brought to the story.   I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, 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.

Biddy by Caleb March

“Biddy” caught my attention this month with its confident voice, textured prose, and the way it quietly paints violence as not a shock to the reader or a glorification, but part of one character’s struggle to be the kind of person he’d like to be. It’s a nuanced take on a fairly standard narrative, and so this month I’d like to talk about writing our version of the standards, trope reply, and how we tackle writing something that’s, beat for beat, a stock story.

“Biddy” lays out a very standard horror fiction plot: Someone is tormented for being different, they take a gruesome revenge, and the protagonist must stop it or succumb to it. There are versions of this story everywhere, in slushpiles, magazines, and drawers. And it’s the very standard nature of that story which highlights one of the interesting aspects of writing short fiction. Short stories are occasionally like jazz: Everyone knows the standards, but it’s what we do with them, as writers, that shows our grasp of our craft.

And “Biddy” shows off its craft well, from the very first scene. As well as setting the stage for the theme of the incident with Bethany, the story of the chickens establishes a fantastic and instant sense of atmosphere. The conflict is established in miniature: the protagonist’s viciousness, his understanding that it’s wrong, and his resulting shame. When Bethany and her siblings come on the scene, the parallels between her and that chick are instantly visible, and the question becomes whether history will repeat itself, or whether the protagonist will manage to find his way out of the moral loop he’s caught himself in. We know what the story is by the end of Scene One. Watching how it will play out in a higher-stakes situation is the source of all the tension through the rest of the story.

That tension is complemented by the prose and voice. There’s a lot of writing advice about writing in dialect—mostly on what not to do—but “Biddy” is a great example of a regional voice done well. The protagonist’s voice is natural and coherent, and his regionalisms are baked in: the rhythm of his storytelling voice, the expressions he uses, and the choice of metaphors all ground him in his time and place.

Combined with some ominously gorgeous imagery—I especially liked the ice-capped peaks of the mountains rose in great biting stony teeth above the tree line—the prose style serves to render someone who’s very much part of his landscape and family, very observant, very smart, and unashamed of any of those parts of him. Our narrator in “Biddy” is a three-dimensional character, complicated, regretful, thoughtful, deftly funny (“nothing under his hat but hair and a perpetual grudge” is great), and tangled in his own delicate social dynamics. What’s more, he’s layered by the fact that the story’s told from a later point in time. There’s an implicit character arc in the contrast between the protagonist’s actions at the time, and the shame his later perspective coats those actions with, making him even more nuanced. More than anything else, the way all these effects combine into a character that’s thoroughly real makes “Biddy” work.

That said, I suspect “Biddy” might still not be the easiest to place. It’s occupying an interesting space: a plot that’s perhaps too traditional for boundary-pushing markets, and a reply to the tropes of horror fiction might prove a little too much for the most traditional horror markets.

What, specifically, “Biddy” has to say for itself—what it has to say about the trope of the teenage girl turning monstrous and taking revenge, and the handling of guilt that horror concerns itself with—is extremely subtle. While I hesitate to say it, because “Biddy” is very much a complete story in and of itself, and I’m not sure if tinkering with it at this point is the right decision, it might be too subtle for the editors who would appreciate what it’s quietly saying about the response to having done wrong.

There is so much to be said for the fact that the protagonist forgoes his dreams and gets stuck, just like every single one of the boys who tormented Biddy; just like Biddy herself, and her siblings. His college education doesn’t get him where he’s going, because of where he’s from and how he speaks and the money he doesn’t have. He ends up scarred and back on the ranch for life. And yet it’s what he does with that disappointment that’s so fascinating to me: In a school full of mean boys and a town full of drunk and gossiping adults, our narrator never gets mean. Instead he considers the rifle, and sets it aside. He takes responsibility. He grows up.

It’s a powerful take on how to handle the question of guilt and violence that horror discusses. It’s a thing worth saying. And while I’m suggesting it with reservations, because again—the fabric of “Biddy” is so well woven that I’m not sure it’s worth disrupting—it may be worthwhile to experiment with bringing that idea just a heartbeat more forward, making its clues just a touch stronger and easier to catch. In the question of how to get around the reflex of oh, same old story, I’m pretty sure this is the answer, but done delicately, with tweezers.

So: I do apologize for how inconclusive this critique has ended up. It’s hard to speak helpfully on a story that’s well done, but that I suspect, just by virtue that it’s been done, is going to be hard to place. If the right editor doesn’t connect with this piece, after a dozen or twenty markets tried, I’d rewrite with an eye to what makes “Biddy” new: what advances the conversation this trope is having, what it has to say, what it’s putting forward.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Talisman And Bone by Karen Kobylarz

I had to choose this piece for this month’s Editor’s Choice—it’s in so many of my wheelhouses. Secondary world based strongly on Earth history, opening in an alternate Tyre, with mentions of Egypt and the ancient Middle East. A hint of adjacent or alternate worlds—one moon or three. There’s so much to love.

The writing is lovely, too, with occasional images that made me stop and go, “Oh, nice!” This, for example: A hint of smoke and jasmine lingered in the air. Or this: I tried to call out, but the storm stole my voice. And this, too: I reached and pulled the weapon free, the white light of Creation’s power sheening its black surface.

There’s a true love of words here, and a strong music in the prose. It’s a pleasure and occasionally a revelation to read.

The writing is very fine, but there’s still work to do. The author’s note on the draft mentions that an editor found the protagonist hard to relate to. I don’t necessarily have that problem, but what I do see might call for a kind of inversion of the usual rules for strong writing.

Keep your writing active, we’re told. Eschew the passive and the abstract. Focus on the concrete. Gravitate toward clear, vivid, memorable images and active constructions.

This is excellent advice in the main. Here I think we may need to relax the rules a bit, keeping the lovely images but moving a bit away from the consistently concrete. That’s the basis of the issue with the protagonist, I think.

She is very active. She’s a doer. She observes and comments and acts and reacts. She seems to have agency, in that she has goals and an agenda, though there’s a fair element of inadvertence in how she goes about achieving them.

What’s missing for me is a sense of emotional depth, of being inside her skin. The story is strongly cinematic—that is, we see and hear what’s going on; we’re shown surface actions and external results, so we have hints of what’s happening underneath. We don’t actually break through the wall into her inner thoughts and feelings. We have a predominance of the concrete, but there’s not quite enough of the abstract or intuitive to balance it.

I chose the quotations above for their beauty but also because they illustrate what’s going on with the storytelling overall. While she appears to act, she’s really being acted upon. Inanimate objects and forces of nature carry the weight of the story. I think we need to go another layer or more below this and show the emotional landscape: the deeper effects on her of the things that are happening around and to her. Let these things happen, but let us see them through the filter of her senses and feelings. We have the data, but we wonder how she’s processing it.

The plotting runs into this issue as well. Her departure from Tyre is reactive—her husband is killed and she has to flee, but while she’s acting and speaking, we have to extrapolate what she’s feeling. She might be numb, that would be a natural first response, but as a reader I want to be sure that’s what’s happening.

When she raises her powers to invoke the storm, its strongest effects happen offstage—and past the initial impetus, her role is essentially passive. We jump from storm to shipwreck, but might benefit from a suitably concise experience of the disaster, with a stronger sense of how it makes her feel and how she may be trying to regain the control she’s lost–or perhaps she’s not trying, but giving up, as once again her magic betrays her. That may seem like a passive response, but it’s a choice. In emotional terms, it’s active.

The questions this reader is impelled to ask, here as elsewhere in the story, are about penetrating the surface and going down into her inner world. What does she feel? How do these events affect her on a deeper level?

The ending has great potential, though her quest to find her own, three-mooned world could be more strongly grounded in character and story. Is it a major motivator, or is it more incidental? Evidently it’s been delayed by her marriage and her stay in Tyre, and now she’s stopping again. I feel as if the stakes at this point could be higher, and she could have more difficulty making the choice—and the choice itself could be clearer. She should make it because she truly chooses to, because she has solid and compelling reasons, rather than because there’s a vacancy and someone needs to fill it.

This comes back to the question of agency. She does a lot of things, but does she do them on her own initiative or because circumstances compel her? What are her strongest driving motivations? What mix of emotions and needs and desires drives her to do what she does?

I don’t think this needs a lot of exposition, nor any purpling of the prose, but if she feels as clearly as she acts and speaks, that may help to resolve the issue of relatability. Readers like to feel as if they’re inside a character’s skin, living the events of the story with her. A little more inside to go with the outside, and this already well-written story will be even more powerful and effective.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Garden Of Purgatory C4C Revised by Robin Zell

I like the concept of this piece a lot, would love to read a novel about the cats. Beginning with a prologue about how the cats got to where they are in Chapter One makes sense to me, and if done well, will both pull the reader in and provide background for the events of the novel proper.

What I’m seeing in this version is a case of concept pulling ahead of character. That’s where the emphasis on dialogue is coming from, I think. Linda is the mechanism for explaining the situation. Harold is the foil, to whom the situation is explained. Even when he’s not there, Linda’s internal monologue revolves around her fundamental dislike for him, interspersed with passages of exposition and background.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with two incompatible people figuring out how to survive after a spaceship crash, but first a worldbuilding question: Would the people responsible for selecting crews be that irresponsible about this match? Why are these two specific people here, now, on this particular ship?

There’s some mention of this in the draft, including the allusion to cost-cutting, but I think it needs more grounding in background and motivation. It can still be a stupid and wrongheaded decision, but I think the story needs more layers. More reason for it to have happened this way. More complexity in the how and why.

This doesn’t need more explanation in the narrative so much as more grounding in the underpinnings of world and story. That I think would include rethinking Harold: what he knows, how he knows it, how he handles the crisis. As written, he’s very much Linda’s intellectual inferior, and he doesn’t contribute much to the mission. He doesn’t have a compelling reason to be there, except for her to explain things to. We need a middle ground between Harold-knows-nothing and Linda-is-the-smart-one, and more demonstrated competence on his part.

There are various ways to make him a more effective character. He might be her match for knowledge and competence, but there’s an ongoing competition between them, sharpened by mutual dislike. In that case, the scenes between them would be more likely to involve mutual hashing out of problems and solutions, with each taking diametrically opposite positions on everything. Again there’s a hint of this dynamic in the scenes between them, but his lack of knowledge and her position as explainer and sole problem-solver feels unbalanced.

Or, his lack of knowledge and understanding might be a consequence of his rapid aging, which adds a different level of complexity to the situation. Because of what happened during the crash, Harold is cognitively incapable of doing his job. Linda has to take up the slack for both. Or even, if it’s bad enough, consider eliminating him in order to stretch their finite resources for her own survival.

If the narrative takes that direction, would Linda worry about ending up like Harold? Would there be pressure to get as much done as she can before that happens? Would she be tempted to give up? Dive into denial? Suicide?

Rethinking Linda’s scenes might help as well. Rather than presenting the facts of the crash through internal monologue, perhaps a flashback? That would be a more direct experience, and perhaps more effective. Likewise, where she thinks about what Harold is like, could we have a scene that shows it instead? Let us see for ourselves from the beginning, and better understand her problems with him.

I’d particularly like to see more of the cats. Rather than Harold relating an offstage encounter and Linda reacting, then explaining what she did, what if the encounter happens onstage and we also get to see more of Linda’s manipulations via scene and flashback? In short—show events directly, happening in real time (story present or story past), rather than indirectly through expository speeches.

Dialogue is tough. We’re encouraged to think of it an active storytelling technique, a way of heightening immediacy and immersing the reader more deeply in the relationship between characters. But if one character consistently explains and the other reacts, that can actually weaken the impact of the story. Dialogue becomes monologue (and internal monologue often accompanies dialogue-as-lecture), and the real substance of the story recedes from the reader’s awareness. She’s being told what happens rather than directly experiencing it.

Right now, in this draft, we’re still in the blocking-out stage. Linda is setting up the situation, explaining how it works. Harold is there to give her a reason to explain things. If there’s more balance between them—either they’re closer to equals or there’s a stronger reason for him to be her inferior—the story structure should sort itself out as well. More scenes in which things happen, more direct experience of events, and for sure, More Cats!

Will there be less dialogue as a result? Maybe not. But the dialogue should work harder to keep the story moving, and rely less heavily on exposition. Then it will really earn its place in the narrative.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Queen Of The Wilis (Updated) by Kelsey Hutton

This tight, atmospheric story quickly draws me in.  By the second paragraph, I’m intrigued by the tone and situation and want to continue.  By the fifth paragraph, I sense the foreshadowing in the mention of Giselle and the “jilted wraiths who take their revenge,” and I’m eager to keep reading to see if this is a revenge story (and if wraiths are involved).  By the eighth paragraph, I have a pretty solid sense of this opera house that offers up its dancers as lovers/prostitutes to rich patrons who keep the opera house in business, so I can understand the significance of the single sentence in the ninth paragraph, “Until tonight.” Placed where it is, this sentence has a major impact, making me excited to see what Myrtha is going to attempt.  The ending of the story reveals Myrtha’s plan and has some nice description (such as “The paper forest comes to life”).  The final paragraph works well.

So I think a lot is working well with this 1,602-word story.  It’s hard to write short, but this piece does a good job of remaining focused, which is key to fiction of this length.  The story begins with Myrtha already pursuing her goal, and it ends when she achieves her goal, so it has a compact, one-act structure.  The story is mainly about revealing what that goal is and the haunting way in which she’ll achieve it.  This is the way many short pieces work; rather than showing us an evolving situation in which the protagonist’s goals and methods change, they simply reveal the existing situation to us.  Since the existing situation is unexpected and striking, revealing it creates a satisfying story.

I did feel a fair amount of confusion on my first read, and I think clearing that up will strengthen the story.   My biggest confusion was about Myrtha.  Because she is, seemingly, speaking to the wealthy gentleman in the first paragraph, and none of the ballet girls speak, I conclude Myrtha is a supervisor/madam, someone who keeps the ballet girls on schedule, runs them through their activities, and hooks up dancers with rich patrons.  In para. 2, Myrtha speaks of the “ballet girls” as if they are people other than herself.  When she says, in the next sentence, “it is time for us to stretch,” I think she’s speaking as the supervisor of the stretching, not as one of the girls who is stretching.  But then the final sentence of para. 2 reads, “We lean over the barre.”  On my first reading, this feels like a point of view shift.  This feeling grows a few paragraphs later with “I move to the back of the room for my pirouettes” and continues through all the pirouettes.  I think this means that the first-person POV has moved into the head of the dancer playing Giselle.

My suggestion would be to make Myrtha the supervisor/madam, since that would better mirror her role as queen at the end.  If she’s just one of the girls, then I don’t know what makes her special or queen. Also, if there is no supervisor/madam, it seems like the girls can avoid being ogled by the patrons (by not going into this room) and can avoid having sex with them.  For myself, I would be more interested in a character who has previously facilitated this process (probably a former “ballet girl”) finally deciding to end it.

The other main source of confusion was the lack of any cue to separate dialogue from other narrative elements.  The first paragraph of the story appears to be Myrtha’s dialogue, but it has no quotation marks around it.  At various other points in the story I believe Myrtha is speaking, though it’s often unclear until I finish the sentence (sometimes I decide she was speaking, sometimes not), and sometimes it remains unclear after that.  For example, “Look at her blush at all the abonnes’ attention, see how she hides her burning cheek . . .” seems to be dialogue, but it is preceded by two sentences of description, so it takes a couple readings to figure out this is dialogue.  To add to the confusion, some of her dialogue seems paraphrased rather than given word for word.  Initially, I think that “But it is also time for wealthy patrons such as yourself to survey this season’s wares” is dialogue, but then I think Myrtha would not call the girls “wares” to the patrons, so I decide this is paraphrased dialogue.  This is too much decoding to do and still remain involved in the story.

My suggestion is that you put dialogue into a separate paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy and some other writers do.  Of writing without quotation marks, McCarthy says, “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.”  A few times, you provide dialogue tags, which tell me that someone is, indeed speaking aloud.  Those could be used more to clarify the situation.

I had a few other areas of confusion.  I don’t understand who “her” is in this sentence:  “Your candied words dribble to a stop as you catch me watching you watching her.”  He seems to be watching Myrtha (“me”), not any “her.”  Also, I didn’t know he was speaking.

I don’t understand why Myrtha would risk revealing her intentions with her creepy spinning and grinning.  Isn’t she concerned that she could be stopped?  If there is no danger, then there is no suspense.  How did she suddenly become so powerful?

I don’t know why the one man is singled out for revenge when all the others seem to be ignored (I guess they die, but Myrtha doesn’t seem to care that they die).

When the “velvet chairs disappear” and everything seems to be collapsing, I think the man has already fallen far out of sight, so it’s confusing when “the floor drops out below [him]” when I think it’s already gone, and then he hits the stage.

In addition to addressing the confusion, I would suggest providing a bit more suspense.  Perhaps there is a moment when Myrtha fears her revenge will not occur as she has planned.  This might occur right before “We are reborn,” and give us a sense that this transformation requires some effort on Myrtha’s part and may or may not work.  Right now, it seems to happen with no particular effort and for no particular reason.  I’m not asking for a whole magic system; that wouldn’t be convincing.  But Myrtha might remember in a rapid montage of images all that has been done to her and the ballet girls, and all she has done to them (if she’s served as madam), and that creates the energy that drives the revenge.

I hope my comments are helpful.  The story creates a strong atmosphere and leaves the reader with a strong image.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, 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.

Kings Of Snow by Cecile Cristofari

“Kings of Snow” caught my eye this month with how much it accomplishes in a very few words: three distinct personalities, a fully realized world caught between ending and rebirth, odds, stakes, catharsis, and a tinge, small but real, of hope.  This month, I’d like to talk about how retellings seat themselves in the readers’ context, and balancing on the fine line between didacticism and making art that speaks for something.

Overall, “Kings of Snow” does great craft work: the empty landscape, literally white as the page, is populated not just with descriptions of what Gas sees, but overlaid with memories that both jump out crisply and juxtapose with what’s described now to create a sense of time, loss, and texture.  That juxtaposition echoes in the story’s metaphors, too: the implied sameness-and-yet-contrast of phrases like “Today the snow is thick as tar” takes another white, blank feature—snow—and compares it to something that is practically its opposite (black, viscous, hot) but does so using a feature that is comparable, and it works: it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance that works.

These are smaller examples, nesting-doll-style, of the larger work the story is doing: taking the story of the Three Kings, changing the protagonists to the kings instead of Mary and the child, flipping a hot climate to a cold one, and turning every trope of that story to practically its opposite—except the story’s core. Again, it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance, and it works.


“Kings of Snow” starts with a definite advantage: It’s an update of a very well-known Christian story, and just like with a fairytale retelling, when we remix or update an old story, we have all the foundations that old story has built in our readers’ minds to lean on. We’ve talked in previous months about the difference between worldbuilding to construct a whole new universe, versus worldbuilding to evoke deep-seated tropes that are already there. “Kings of Snow” goes the evocation route just by virtue of being a retelling, and that gives readers a huge amount of information without ever having to put that information on the page.  The result is the tightly-packed, information-dense degree of content—and yet the clear, spare prose—you get when reading poetry, and the creation of two distinct hooks: first, the game of guessing which story this is (and the quickly paid off satisfaction of feeling that familiar click) and second, the question of why this story, here.

There was a concern from the author that as a holiday story, “Kings of Snow” might be overly predictable, and I want to address that question by suggesting that in a retelling, predictable is less a sign of failure than a tool we, as writers, use.  More than any other kind of short fiction, retellings are all about context—about what we seat around that familiar click—and less knowing what plot events are going to happen than what they mean in a new frame.

One of the primary advantages to writing a retelling, even though magazines are full of them, is the instant layering it lets us build into a story. As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, there’s generally a big push for the original in SFF, but tropes are a tool: using a familiar story lets us basically skip the establishment of the plot itself and use the advancement of the story not to introduce information, but to comment on information that readers already have from every other story on this topic. It’s a capacity for creating instant depth: the draw of the story becomes less three older characters trudging to a birth through difficult terrain, but what everything associated with the story of the Three Kings means in this particular snowy, post-apocalyptic age—and what that could mean for us now.  In religious/scriptural terms (since we’re in a Christian story), that’s an act of interpretation and application, and it lets us as writers say things that are poignant and personal if handled well.

And in “Kings of Snow” it is, I think, handled quite well.  Its mix of supporting details takes those familiar tropes and builds in, quickly, complexity.  It’s good to truly feel Gas, Bart, and Mel’s age in the difficulty of the journey, and there’s a unique task accomplished by their bickering: cast in the role of three wise elders—knowing from the original story that they are all supposed to be wise—their disagreements about the path to take, provisions, gifts, and the world both define them as characters and create a worldview that’s less about who’s right or wrong than the way people negotiate three different sets of knowledge about the world and how to make the journey.  There’s a beautiful thing being said here about different wisdoms.

That thought about how different wisdoms combine is part of what makes “Kings of Snow” feel inspiring, not didactic, despite functionally bringing the story to a halt to deliver a lecture on present circumstances.  That paragraph of backstory, on how the world ended up this way, works precisely because of how it balances the context of the post-apocalyptic Québecois setting with the retold story, and some very specific word choices that widen the scope from a lecture on how to be into a unifying sense of shared mistakes.

“Kings of Snow” defuses its condemnation in a few key ways.  Immediately following those rich jerks by not just “poor jerks”, but “us poor jerks” builds in a tone of exhausted complicity.  It’s a note of fatigue, rather than blame.  That balancing of conflict with resignation continues as the paragraph builds out the conflict into Mel’s my-people-told-you-so—which puts Gas and the people he’s angry at together, in one group, again—and then defuses that with her own complicity, and the snowmobile.  Once Gas being the descendant of slaves is brought in, this one paragraph starts to billow out into the bones of a much more complex system—not a simple equation of who’s to blame, but structures which everyone participated in, in different ways, and which brought everyone down.

I was left with the overwhelming sense that everyone contributed; everyone’s hands are dirty; everyone was part of this failure.  And most importantly, that everyone is still in this together, trudging through the snow, continually bickering about how to assign blame.  I was left with the sense of a society.

It’s that recognition on Gas’s part that “now we’re all trudging together” that, I think, makes this multilayered, difficult, vital paragraph work—and answered satisfyingly, for me, the question of why this story now?  Why this story told in this particular way?  Why would I, asked if this story is predicatable, say that even if it were, that doesn’t matter?

Retellings are about context, and the thing “Kings of Snow” doesn’t change is the story’s core. Marie is, even though we never meet her, bringing a child into the world in a dark time, and isn’t moving from where she is, because the whales are coming back, and she’s going to be there to usher that rebirth in.  Marie, is trying. And her community is showing up to bring her gifts and witness, even if they think what she’s doing with the whales is dangerous and stupid, because she has hope.

Which is why it’s an excellent stroke of detail to make the gift is a piece of soapstone: something part of several northern cultures, and of a value that’s not immediate, but long-term.  It’s a beautifully appropriate gift, thematically speaking: a metaphor for a child, or a new world; a gift that screams potential, yet to be shaped; a gift that will, with good work and luck, become beautiful. That’s a necessary story for many readers right now, and an important repositioning of the narrative of the three kings: one of people from an older world doing a physically and emotionally difficult journey, because at the end is hope.

In most of the English-speaking world, which is where the bulk of our audience is, we’re in fairly desperate political times for people all across the spectrum of belief.  I’m personally expecting an upsurge in art that has a message.  We write what we’re living, breathing, and feeling every day, and when political and social upheaval is what we’re living, fiction organized around a message is going to show up more and more.

“Kings of Snow” does this job very well, in a short space, using techniques that make a lot of the standard pitfalls of fiction actually work in its favour. I think it’s ready to place with a market.

Best of luck with this piece, and thank you for it.

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