Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Airbody by Sameem Siddiqui

“Airbody” caught my eye this month with its narrative voice—warm, cynical, self-reflective, and sweet—its careful attention to the impact, good and bad, of its science-fictional element on everyday lives, and the simple, humane lines of the story it’s telling. I love stories that take a less-worn approach to who would use science fiction technologies, why, and how, and take questions of a technology’s implications further. I do think, though, there’s room here to tighten, polish, and focus—it is an early draft! So this month, I’d like to discuss how to figure out what advances the narrative and what unfocuses or slows it in the kinds of stories that are about the power of smaller moments.

This story is deeply rooted in recognizing humanity, and it starts early and deploys that growth carefully. The line of travel from the first paragraph’s archetype-driven “Amazing how all Desi aunties are basically the same”—and a list of personalities that are mostly about really about the children, really about Arsalan—to a complex, whole person saying, “When you could live foolishly thinking you’d turn out to be something other than what you became in the end” is well laid out, and bolstered by subthemes and small details: the whole question of food and authenticity and memory, what the hints Arsalan drops about his habitual self-neglect, his childhood, and the roots of his habit of putting everyone else first say about care, caring for oneself, and being cared for.

There are deep waters being explored in “Airbody”, and what’s exciting is how well they all fit together—and fit the choice of science fictional element. The journey of “Airbody”—which is really thematically appropriate for a story about borrowing and commodifying bodies—is a journey from seeing people as things, people as how they’re useful to someone else into seeing people-as-people: unique, complicated, important. What Arsalan needed from others, and needs now; what Meena needed, and what Haniya needs.

The science-fictional metaphor being rolled out here absolutely fits, and “Airbody” is smart to not clutter that arc with digressions about the technology itself. It’s leaving room for the most powerful element of the story to shine, and that’s a real strength even though this is an early draft.

The voice is engaging from the first sentence, but it’s tangible how it softens near the end, as Arsalan recognizes his hunger and Meena’s as something the same, and the Urdu dialogue’s nested in such a way that what explanation is there feels organic, and a good deal of it is clear from context. Overall, this is deeply affecting, and has the potential to sharpen into a really powerful story.

The suggestions I have are mostly about pacing and focus: finding the places where the piece lags a little, or information doesn’t yet connect, and working out those rougher spots. This is something that might be a little more difficult in a story that isn’t aggressively events-driven; for those, the question “does this move the plot forward?” can get us most of the way there, but in a story that’s grounded in thematic questions, intimacy, character moments, and atmosphere, it can be trickier to step back and evaluate which of those moments are serving the overall piece better than others.

The method I would try would be to think about whether a line or moment works well by finding the centre of the story—in this case, I think, food, memory, the difference between using someone for something and loving them, sacrifice, and care—and seeing how strongly or weakly that line or event relates in any way back to the centre. Think of this as revising by Venn diagram! The stronger the tie, the more that line or scene is rounding out the whole of the story; the weaker the tie, the more it might need to be bolstered or trimmed. This is a bit like topiary, or trimming trees: the feeling of readerly focus in a short story isn’t too different from looking at a tree or shrub that’s kept in a tidy, cohesive shape—versus one that still has bits sticking out.

So specifically, I’d suggest attention on tightening up the middle of the piece. Meena and Arsalan’s banter and the whole cooking process note the passage of time and process, but they aren’t always feeding that complex nest of thematic questions, and where they aren’t touching at least one, the story feels a bit like it’s briefly spinning its wheels.

Likewise, the memories of Hafza and Karla aren’t tied as solidly as they could be into the question of Arsalan’s mother, of intimacy and what he’s after; all of them aren’t reflecting Meena and Haniya’s relationship all the way just yet. I can tell that parallel is important, but it’s not fully on the page for me yet, so the conclusion I’m supposed to draw—about what happened, or how I should feel as a reader—isn’t yet in focus for me.

I’m pretty sure once those things are snapped together, or brought out more, “Airbody” will be a really sweet, powerful piece—and I’m looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

A Child’s Crusade, Chapter 2, by Elizabeth Porco

I like the various concepts that appear and develop in this chapter. The nature and evolution of superpowers, the Zero-Crossing Arena, the family at the center of the story and the young protagonist who has to come to terms with both her cancer diagnosis and her new powers. These are all strong plot-drivers, with lots of potential for emotional arcs and conflict both physical and mental.

As I read this stage of the draft, I kept coming back to two basic elements of craft. One, the selection and development of scenes. Two, the art of transitions.

Real life has a way of just going on: the same things happen over and over, crises come and go, and there’s no distinct shape to any of it—except what our brains try to impose on it. What story does is impose order on the progression of events. It makes connections. It decides what’s important, and by extension, it minimizes or passes over everything else.

When a writer selects scenes, she’s establishing priorities in the story. She’s also practicing narrative economy. She keeps repetition to a minimum—if ideas or phrases or events repeat, they’re doing so for a reason. They’re telling the reader, Pay attention. This is important. When the same thing happens over and over, the author may refer briefly to this fact, then pick one scene that shows this thing happening, and preferably in some way that moves the story forward.

In this chapter, Alicia’s medical adventures are numerous and ongoing. Each one is a step along the way toward (everybody hopes) recovery. At the same time, she’s learning about her new powers and discovering how to control them. The hallucinations are a part of the process, as are her interactions with others: fellow patients, medical personnel, her family.

That’s all good, and it’s good story-stuff. What I think it needs at this stage is some stepping back and thinking about what the chapter wants to accomplish. Which elements are most important? Where does Alicia need to be at the beginning, and how will she have progressed (or regressed—character development can go either way) by the end of the chapter?

Once these questions are answered, I would suggest condensing the main ideas into two or three connected scenes. Alicia’s introduction to the cage, for example, then her experience inside it, and finally, the aftermath: one coherent scene that illustrates what has happened to her and how she is dealing with it. Thi s scene will lead toward the next chapter, and set up what’s going to happen there.

In the draft, a multiple things happen in the second half of the chapter. A lot goes on over an extended period. Characters both new and old and come and go.

There’s enough information here for multiple scenes and a number of chapters. Which of all these things is most important right after Alicia gets out of the cage? How do Alicia and the people around her handle it? How does it feed into the next important event in the story? What happens over and over, that can be condensed into a single reference or snippet of a scene? What contributes directly to the movement of the story, and what slows or halts that movement?

The guiding principle here is focus. Focus on what’s directly relevant to the story right here and now. What builds on what came before, and what leads clearly toward the next point in the plot.

Focus also on developing emotional arcs. Think about how various characters—and Alicia most of all—will feel about what’s happening. How do their emotions evolve? What progressions do they go through? Alicia’s father in particular will have a whole complex of feelings about Alicia’s cancer (worry, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, love for her, and much more), and once she’s undergone treatment, those feelings will intensify and evolve. Now she has the same powers he has—how does he feel about that? Is he scared? Angry? Proud? What is going on in his head as he takes care of her?

One thing that may help with developing each scene, both within the scene and in moving from one to the next, is some work on transitions. In the draft, events tend to proceed at pretty much the same emotional temperature. We get time-stamps—the next two days, next, then, two hours later, after that. Characters come and go, in so many words. Someone comes in, someone is there, someone goes out.

The cumulative effect is almost static. Scenes run from one to the next without clear demarcation. Things happen in a steady sequence, with a fairly shallow rise and fall of narrative tension.

A very simple way to demarcate scenes and changes of viewpoint is to insert a line space whenever the scene or point of view shifts. That gives the reader a visual clue: Expect a change here.

Less simple but similarly helpful is to vary the ways in which time passes and characters move here and there. Instead of saying, each time, how many days or hours have passed, think about how to show the passing. Maybe there’s a clock on the wall, or somebody mentions that it’s been X number of days since they saw Alicia, or she stops to count the days or hours while she’s waiting for the next procedure. Maybe she’s losing track, or maybe she’s anxious for a certain amount of time to have passed.

Cutting back on the number of things that happen in the chapter, and rethinking the time frame for this chapter—making it shorter and more focused, or else moving more quickly from one key event to another—will help make the progression of time and events clearer, and make it easier to decide how to move from one event to another. It’s all about clarity, and about focusing on what’s most important to the story. Once that starts happening, the story should be easier for the reader to follow, and the characters will have more room to grow and change and evolve (or devolve—as I said earlier, events and people can regress as well as progress).

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, 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.

Daughter Of Dragons, Chapter 1 by Jennifer Baylor

This chapter has a great hook and a strong closing line. There’s a lot in between to love: dragons, badass alligators, and a protagonist with magical powers she has to hide from ordinary humans. Plus a crisis in the workplace.

The plot comes out of the gate at a run. That’s a good thing in urban fantasy, which tends to like fast pacing and high personal and emotional stakes. Since it’s a draft, the repetition of information and the insertion of exposition into the middle of fast action scenes reads to me like the author figuring out where everything fits most effectively: trying out different placements, experimenting with the interweaving of action and exposition.

In revision, most of this would be cut; we’d get one or two mentions of magical powers, what Dragon Voice is and how it works, what Morgan’s job entails and what’s happening on this particular day, where Morgan comes from and what her history is with Bess, and so on. Morgan’s internal monologue would be trimmed considerably, too: rhetorical questions, extended reactions to what’s happening around her, pauses in the action while she reflects on backstory and personal issues.

For this stage of the draft, it’s all good. It’s the infrastructure of the plot taking shape, building the scaffolding and loading in all the elements that might be needed at some point. When it’s time to revise, the draft will trim down and focus on what’s directly and immediately important to the story. To resort to my own set of rhetorical questions:

What do we need to know right here and now?

What can wait till later?

Where does this piece of information most effectively belong? Can it wait for a later scene or chapter? Is it essential that we see it here?

As I read and enjoyed the story in draft form, I felt that there was a tremendous amount going on. Not just one rogue alligator but two. Not just two rogue alligators but a dragon. And this on top of Morgan’s job issues and an imminent invasion of kindergarteners and VIPs.

As with the prose and the flow of information, I wonder if the plot might benefit from a good trim. One alligator (I cast my vote for Bess and her eggs; there’s a whole world of emotion and plot-consequences there), one or at most two dragon passes, and woven through it, one human tension: either the kids or the VIPs. I’d vote for the kids, between the potential for chaos they represent, and the connection to Bess and her babies-to-be. Maybe trim the speaking roles among the staff as well. Really focus on dragon and magic drama, alligator drama, and imminent human drama.

The other thing to think about is the timing. The whole chapter takes place, we’re told, in under fifteen minutes. That’s a very short period for everything that happens. If the action pares down to half the original number of players and crises, that will help tighten and focus the tension.

So will a drastic pruning of Morgan’s internal monologue. She stops several times in the middle of the action to remember and reflect. When this happens, the plot stops. The tension snaps. We lose the urgency of the moment.

This might work if she has the power to stop time—and that might add some interesting complications to the story. But as she’s written, she seems disconnected from the action, and she’s missing major aspects of the situation. She doesn’t even see the struggle with Bess, though she’s bonded to that particular alligator.

Even if she is distracted by Burt, at her pay grade and with her powers, Morgan should be aware that there’s a second fight going on. I also wonder how she could have missed that Bess has been breaking out repeatedly—even if she’s office-bound, wouldn’t her connection with the alligator alert her to the fact that something’s not right? And wouldn’t she be informed that there is a problem, since it’s a huge safety issue for both staff and visitors?

This is what I call Thinking Things Through. The writer sets up a situation, develops it within the scene and chapter, and then connects it to the story as a whole. Actions, as they say, have consequences. It’s the writer’s job (and joy) to work out what those are, and to think about whole ranges of ramifications—then pick the one or two or three that does the most to move the story forward, develop the character, and keep the reader reading, eager to find out what’s next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, 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.

A Woman’s Place by Murder Boy

I enjoyed the clean writing in this piece, the carefully chosen details, and the objective viewpoint, which is critical to the success of a story like this.  Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” had a great appreciation for objective point of view and an unerring sense for when to use it.  A good story for third person objective POV is one in which something mysterious and very intriguing is happening, something that we can understand by the end of the story through careful observation of the external, and something bigger than the perspective of any one character could convey to us.  Since this story is not about any one character but instead about the revelation of what’s happening and what sort of society this is, third person objective POV is the best choice.  Third person objective can be very tricky to handle, and this story uses it very well.  We understand the three women even though we don’t enter their heads.

The story also does a good job of building suspense through the objective POV.  Since a lot of information is withheld in objective POV, we are forced to gather clues from the text and put them together to understand this mysterious and intriguing event.  That suspense keeps me reading eagerly until the end.

Another strength of the story is the way it reveals the world to us through brief pieces of information that are worked pretty naturally into the text.

For me, the main weakness of the story is the ending.  This is one of the most common weaknesses in stories.  Endings are hard.  In this case, as I realize the three women are in a competition and I see them clutching and kissing their children, I immediately conclude (by the third paragraph) that the two losers of the competition will have their children killed.  At the end of the story, the eliminated contestant does have her child killed, pretty much in the way I imagined.  A climax should feel both inevitable and surprising.  This one definitely feels inevitable, but it does not feel surprising.  The only surprise is that only one child is killed instead of two, and for me, that’s a disappointment.

What the story needs to provide at the climax is a surprise that also feels “right” or inevitable.  We didn’t see it coming, but once it comes, we realize this is the only possible ending the story could have.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and throws the ring in.  Since this has been his goal all along, this climax would feel inevitable but not surprising.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and starts to throw the ring in, but Sam snatches it away.  Since Sam has been dedicated to helping Frodo destroy the ring, this climax would feel surprising but not inevitable.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom, but instead of throwing the ring away, he claims it for his own.  Gollum, who has been stalking Frodo, bites off Frodo’s finger with the ring and falls in the crack.  Since we know Gollum’s desire for the ring, and we have seen the ring tempt one character after the next, Frodo claiming the ring and Gollum taking the ring make perfect sense.  Yet we’ve been focused on the question of whether Frodo would make it to the Crack of Doom or not.  We haven’t considered (at least I haven’t, and no one I know has) that Frodo will claim the ring for his own.  Once it happens, we realize this is what had to happen.  But until that point, we didn’t consider it.  That makes this climax (which Tolkien constructed) both Inevitable and surprising.

So you can consider various possibilities and see which one might feel inevitable and surprising.

Another way to find the right climax is to consider the story’s theme.  I wrote a blog post about this, which you can find here:  https://writerunboxed.com/2018/11/12/unifying-your-story-around-a-meaningful-theme/.  A major theme in The Lord of the Rings is “Power is inherently corrupting,” and you can see that played out in the climax.

In this story, women seemingly staged a revolution that failed and are now controlled by men.  The competition, which judges women by their cooking skills, seems designed to reinforce societal standards in which women are expected to be satisfied with cooking and cleaning and having children.  A possible theme might be, “Tyrannical societies maintain control through oppression and fear.”  The current climax shows this, though I don’t know whether the death of Mrs. Irons’s child will help the society control Mrs. Irons.  She could become an even more outspoken enemy of the state.  I wonder if, instead, the three children might be somewhat older, perhaps five or six.  And perhaps the losing contestant is tied down while her child stabs her to death.  This would eliminate an enemy, traumatize a child, perhaps into being an obedient citizen, and strike fear into every woman watching.  It would also provide the missing surprise.  By changing some details of the story, this climax might also feel inevitable.

Anyway, that’s one possibility.

I hope this is helpful.  The simplicity and efficiency of the story make it striking and memorable.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

If All You’ve Known Is Winter by Russell Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Homestead (Iris) by Kelli Kimble

This novel-universe checks a lot of my boxes. I love ancient Egypt. I outright stan Anubis. And I’ve always been fond of the Stargate franchise. The hint of Southern gothic adds a nice touch of spice.

Since this is an early draft of a first novel, the first thing I’m going to say is one of my standard pieces of advice, which is that there is no wrong way to write a first draft. The time to worry about doing things “right” is later on, in the revision stages. Right now, the story needs to come out in whatever way it’s coming out. Just worry about getting the words on the page.

Once the draft is written, a couple of things might be worth thinking about. One is the time in which the story is set. There are numerous ways to establish that in the narrative—word choice, turns of phrase, characters’ attitudes and world view, references to current events, and so on—and it’s a good idea to apply some of them, but one very simple solution is to label a chapter or a section by date. Then the bits of relevant detail have a clear context.

Another thing that might be worth pondering in revision is the way in which the chapter—and presumably the novel—relays information. In many ways this first chapter serves as a sort of author’s note to self. It sets up some of the backstory and establishes who and what both Mr. Anu and Miss Hond are. It does this primarily through Mr. Anu’s speeches, interspersed with bits of Miss Hond’s internal monologue.

There’s nothing wrong with this at all, in a first draft. The story unfolds in its own way, and the author gets the words down as expeditiously as possible. In revision, I’d suggest opening up the exposition both within quotation marks and outside of them, and finding ways to convey the information in a more immediate fashion.

Mr. Anu’s revelations are enough in themselves to fill up a novel. As a reader I’d like to see how Iris is different, rather than watch Mr. Anu tell her how she is. Maybe we can see her working on the farm, see how she uses her powers to help her perform a task, and give us a sense of how she feels about it. Excited? Guilty? Scared? That might make an interesting opening, especially if it includes some sense of the mystery that surrounds Mr. Anu.

The revelation that she’s not human, and that he’s an ancient god, could build up over a series of scenes or chapters. Keep us wondering, build tension and suspense, give us information in smaller doses. Let us guess, and see if our guesses are right.

Maybe Iris comes in unannounced and catches a glimpse of his true form. Maybe she picks up on some communication between him and his interstellar contacts, or however else the science fiction plays out in the novel. Or maybe she finds something on the farm that isn’t of Earth, that points to Mr. Anu’s origins. Then she would have to make choices about what do, whether and when to tell anyone, and how to use what she’s found.

One thing that might help is to study authors who you think build suspense well, whose works you can’t stop reading—you stay up all night devouring their novels, and can’t wait to find out what happens. Look carefully at your favorite scenes. See how they keep you turning the pages—how they reveal information, what they show onstage and what they keep from you as well. What do they put in, and what do they leave out? What sorts of narrative devices do they use? How do they use dialogue and exposition? How do they develop backstory?

Then maybe try some of these techniques in a scene or scenes of your own. Experiment. See what works for you. Most of all, think about bringing your story alive, letting your characters act and interact and think through as few filters as possible.

Best of luck with this novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

A Confluence Of Rivers by Lauren Simon

This chapter has a great deal of potential. It’s solid urban fantasy, with contemporary characters, magical contretemps, and a nice bonus in the relationship between mother and daughter. I love the sugar glider and the intimation that exotic pets are actually magical beings.

The author’s note asks about dialogue, and I paid particular attention to that as I read the chapter, because dialogue is one of those things that almost can’t be taught. You can’t tell students to listen to real-life conversations, because in real life, most of what we say to one another is what I call filler: ritual phrases that don’t really say anything. Hello, goodbye, how are you? Mostly, when we talk, we don’t really say anything. We’re establishing social connections, but we’re not moving our story forward.

In fiction, dialogue is the “good-parts version.” It feels convincing and realistic and immediate, but it keeps the stock phrases to a minimum. Whatever our characters say is directly relevant to the story. We leave out the extraneous bits, but if we do it right, readers will feel as if they’re getting the whole conversation.

It’s not just the words in quotation marks. It’s how the conversation is framed, what the characters do as they speak, how they interact physically and emotionally as well as verbally. That’s what I’d like to look at here.

The dialogue itself mostly does what dialogue in fiction is supposed to do. The narrative around it, in this draft, seems to be trying to figure itself out. There is a great deal of stage business. Each short line of dialogue is surrounded by characters doing things, sometimes several things in a row:

She twisted the gold bangles on her left wrist. “Your father made some bad decisions.” My mother inhaled sharply and let the air out through her teeth. She looked a picture on the wall of the three of us in front of a row of roses.

Exposition brings the narrative to a halt, filling in backstory or explaining the context:

Peanut was a sugar glider: tiny and big-eyed with a striped head and skin stretched between his limbs. I’d found him as a kid. Peanut could levitate and occasionally produced items from the folds of his wings like thimbles, buttons, and coins. I don’t know where they came from, but they weren’t from our house. He was a squidge: part-animal, part-magic, part-demon. On the power scale, squidges were smaller critters, demonics were medium-sized and dangerous, and demons topped them all. My business dealt exclusively with squidges or at least it had until today.

Sometimes both happen at once, as here:

My mother walked into the kitchen, turned on the electric kettle and opened the cupboard. She had a cupboard full of normal and magical remedies—from her time when she worked in a naturopathic shop. It was one of her many jobs she’d worked before Pregúntame, her advice column, had taken off.

Sometimes too there are odd gestures, phrasing that’s a little off true:

“It hurt you,” she guessed and bit her lips, holding them inside her mouth until she spoke again.

This almost reads as if she bit her own lips off and started to swallow them.

Each of these devices interrupts the flow of the dialogue. The characters’ conversation stops, starts, stops again. There’s so much to process that the reader loses track of what the characters are talking about.

In revision I would suggest reducing the stage business to a handful of actions that are directly relevant to what the characters are saying. Cut the eye action—gazing, staring, and so on—to one or two examples. Set up the actions around the tea in a line or two at most, then focus on the dialogue. Cut back the gestures likewise, pick one that’s emblematic of each character and let her do it once, twice at most.

The same applies to exposition. Choose one or two details that sum up the physical setting, and let those contain the rest. Pare away repetition and think carefully about the order in which details appear: make sure they follow logically. When it comes to backstory, think about what the reader absolutely has to know right here and now, and condense that into a sentence or two.

The key to effective dialogue is to keep the focus on the dialogue, and to make sure the framing devices enhance rather than overwhelm it. The tighter and more focused both speech and actions are, the stronger the scene is likely to be.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, 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.

The Box by Jason Kreth

I’m immediately drawn into “The Box” from the first sentence, which introduces the mysterious box.  That sentence sends me the message that this story will move forward crisply and excite my curiosity.  I get this same message at the beginning of the second scene, when the story reveals that the cows on the farm have begun to die.  That’s a very nice escalation of the situation.  For me, the greatest strengths of the story are this crisp pace, the curiosity it evokes, and the simplicity of the premise, which allows me to start forming theories and expectations from the start.

I think several other areas could be improved.  While the simplicity of the premise contributes to the story’s appeal, that also makes it more likely that I’ll compare this story to others with similar premises.  The object that grants wishes has appeared in many stories.  One of the most famous is the “The Monkey’s Paw.”  Stephen King played off of this story in his novel Pet Sematary.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a familiar motif; many great stories do.  The trick is in how you develop it.

“The Box” doesn’t immediately make me think of these works because the object at first seems to cause problems (the dead cows) rather than granting wishes.  So in that section I’m engaged in trying to figure out why and how the box is doing this and how it might be stopped.  If the box caused escalating problems and the attempts to stop it led to more problems, that could be interesting.

But the plot turns away from this.  Once the men explain how the box works and it begins granting wishes, the story falls into a more familiar track.  Still, the price demanded by the box, memories, provides an interesting twist, so I’m interested in seeing how the progressive loss of memories will affect George and how this will lead the plot in a fresh direction.

Unfortunately, the wishes lead right to Regina’s death, similar to the way the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw” lead to Herbert’s death.  So as I read the story, it is becoming more and more familiar and evoking less curiosity and suspense.  I know that when George gives up his memories of his alcoholism he will return to being an alcoholic.  And I know as soon as Regina dies that George will bring her back.  And I know that doing so will take all his memories.  The final act doesn’t provide me with any significant questions to wonder over or concerns to evoke suspense.

I think there are several ways to develop the plot to avoid this problem.  The story has an interesting triad of characters with George, Regina (his wife), and their friend, the first-person narrator.   Yet they each have their roles, and that really doesn’t change in the story.  George is the protagonist, his actions driving the story.  The narrator observes, and Regina is the victim.  If, for example, George could offer the memories of other people to get the box to grant his wishes, that could be very interesting.  The narrator could be losing memories without realizing it.  Or Regina could.  Another possibility would be to have a romantic relationship building between Regina and the narrator.  One (or both) of them might try to use the box to get rid of George.  They might try planting a camera in George’s office to see how he opens the box.  They might take slips of paper with George’s handwriting and combine them to offer the box a deal that they want.  Another option would be to tell the story from Regina’s point of view.  A story written from the POV of a character killed and then wished back into existence could provide an interesting perspective on the situation.

This connects to another area I think could be strengthened.  The narrator is quite a passive character and his emotions don’t come through strongly for most of the story.  I think the story would be stronger if the narrator was not just a chronicler and had stronger goals of his own.  This could give him a stronger attitude about everything George does.  George’s actions would either help the narrator in his own goals or hinder him, and that would put more at stake for the narrator and generate stronger emotions in him.  It would also create another layer of conflict and suspense in the story, which could make it more emotional, intense, and unpredictable.  When the narrator doesn’t seem to have any goals and doesn’t seem to really care much about what George does (until near the end), that makes me less involved too.  The narrator seems to know that George will revert to alcoholism before George gives up those memories, yet the narrator offers no warning to George and doesn’t try to stop him.  If the narrator is really George’s friend, I think he would care more.  If the narrator wants Regina for himself, then he might encourage George to give up his alcoholic memories, knowing the marriage would be ruined.  Either way, I’d be more involved.

I’ll cover the last two areas quickly.  First, some of the dialogue is weak.  When Regina brings coffee to George and the narrator, they both thank her.  You could show more about their relationships if they said something more personal.  There’s a fair amount of pretty standard dialogue throughout; characters nodding and saying “Yeah” or “Sure”; characters shrugging and saying “I don’t know.”  If the character is going to nod or shrug, he doesn’t need to also say “Yeah” or “I don’t know.”  Here’s an example involving the narrator:

“I shrugged.  ‘I don’t know, George, but that sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

This could be rewritten,

“I shrugged.  ‘It sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

Finally, the story has four acts, which means it feels kind of unwieldy and long.  One act or three acts usually work best.  A four-act structure rarely works well.  The first act, in which George is trying to figure out what the box is, lasts about one page.  The second act, in which George is trying to save his cows, lasts about a page and a half.  The third act, in which George is using the box to grant his wishes, lasts about four pages.  The fourth act, in which George is trying to bring Regina back, is about two pages.  The proportions aren’t working well, since we instinctively expect Act 2 to be the longest and Act 3 to be short and final.  If you cut the section in which the cows are dying, which really has no impact on the rest of the story, you could develop this into a stronger three-act structure.

I hope this is helpful.  I was carried right along through the story and really enjoyed the curiosity it evoked.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Inflexible (Part 1 of 2) by James Victor

“Inflexible” caught my attention this month with its meditative narrative voice; its deeply-considered, half-familiar, half-odd, vivid worldbuilding; and the way it handles funny and horrible and mournful events together, and draws them all to a satisfying conclusion. And it achieves that effect using small cues—facts, established understandings, and details—that all start in the very first scene. So this month, I’d like to talk about developing small things into larger ones to create a sense of unity in our work.

“Inflexible” is set in a richly developed world: one that feels like one of the less-utilized corners of Renaissance Europe. There are just enough standard tropes present here—vampires, executioners—to solidly establish place and genre, but the way they’re handled feels fresh, vivid, and alive. There’s a sense, reading this piece, that there’s been first-principles thought given to how those tropes might really work—and that focus on logistics and social dynamics creates a concretness in the setting that makes it feel real and relevant.

The second element in play in “Inflexible” is the narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is an excellent observer, balancing his relative silence and lack of general agency by offering up a steady flow of details: Ganoes’s anxious tapping fingers, the little clue of how Harrad rebuffs Ganoes’s intimacy by placing his sword on his knee.

Those little details add to the feeling of immersion and credibility in “Inflexible”, but they also each serve as tiny seeds for larger issues that will show up in the story—and that’s where this piece really starts to work well for me: foreshadowing.

The first scene of “Inflexible” is rife with details or comments that each grow into larger—pivotal—narrative concerns later on. Ganoes’s anxiety is a great clue, in hindsight, that he was anxiously up to something unusual—personal—with this commission, and that turns out to be the motive that brings Harrad down. The rules prohibiting Harrad from resting his greatsword in any comfortable way discreetly prefigures the story’s entire conflict, where there is no way Harrad’s duties let him carry his office without getting seriously hurt. The narrator’s uncertainty about whether to act or hang back is a establishes him as a character who can’t yet parse the swirling social context around him well enough to exercise good judgment, and it’s a tiny microcosm of his absolutely fatal error in letting the almoner have his guest.

What foreshadowing does in a piece of fiction is prime the reader’s expectations: it’s a little piece of information about a character or a situation that’s offered in order to make the later reveal feel more inevitable, more satisfying, more right, and all of those little hints are deployed very effectively. When the larger, more serious incidents establish major plot points, none of them feel abrupt, unreasonable, or out of nowhere. Nothing that happens feels out of line with these characters’ personalities and tendencies, because as a reader, the story’s already alerted me that these are things those characters would do. An emotional arc is being resolved, not opened, and so every turn in “Inflexible”—set up as they are—feels incredibly satisfying.

That smooth machining of plot elements makes every development emerge smoothly from the last, and the inevitable tragic ending feel right, because it’s couched in all kinds of hindsight. In retrospect, as a reader, I can see exactly which traps, miscues, and inevitabilities made this fall together.

The other element that makes “Inflexible” work for me is the tone. I feel like it’s not exceptionally common to read a story with this kind of material that takes the perspective and tone this one does. While the execution itself is incredibly grisly, it’s described with a quiet, sad, almost bitter compassion that takes the sting out of what’s being depicted; I never felt as if “Inflexible” was aiming to shock, or to hurt.

Overall, this is a very strong piece that doesn’t twig a great many suggestions for me. I would consider, if word count is a factor, trimming the conversation about women in prison, the guard, and sexual assault considerably; it’s one of the few elements in this piece that doesn’t pay off in any way later, and what it gains in character development—who the guard thinks the narrator is, and establishing for readers how that’s untrue—might not be enough to merit the space it’s taking up.

To answer the questions in the author notes: Yes, I think it very much works, and best of luck finding this piece a home!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, 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.

BIONIC MAGIC (CH 1: THE HATCHING) by Lizzie Web

Science fantasy is an interesting genre. On the one hand it’s science fiction—humans in space for example, exploring strange new worlds. On the other, it has magic, and often magical beings. When it works, it’s a glorious crossover.

This chapter has some promising elements. Energy creatures in the form of mythical beasts, a protagonist with magical healing powers, and humans as adversaries, experimenting with alien species. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of story to set up.

One thing I would suggest for this opening chapter is to shift the focus a little bit, to establish key elements of the worldbuilding up front and to tighten up the action and the characters’ interactions. The opening paragraphs tell us about the urgency Corva feels, and show some of the scenery through which she is racing and some of the creatures that populate it, as well as establishing some of the elements of the magical system. The effect is rather confusing, because there are so many details, but those details don’t completely clarify where we are or why Corva is so desperate to get to Moonelsa.

One alternative would be to skip past the tour and go straight to the nest. The details that I as a reader want to know are the ones that establish genre, location, and a broad sense of what’s going on. I’d like to be clear that we’re on an alien planet, which could be as simple as naming it. The orange sun is a good hint, but I need more; I’m distracted by what seems like earth-style mythical fauna, and would have thought we were in Faerie if I hadn’t had the author’s note on the genre. I think we need to know about the human invaders early on, and to be clearer about what they did to Moonelsa.

Corva’s flight is only really relevant if something happens that affects the plot. Somebody tries to stop her from helping the dragon, or she stumbles across somebody or something who will play a part in the story later—a human drone or scout, maybe. Otherwise, the focus of the chapter is the hatching, and Corva’s arrival there and what happens after that. That’s where the story begins.

The chapter does one thing absolutely right: it ends in such a way that I had to check out Chapter 2 to find out what happened. Good going! And helpful for me because the author’s note there told me about the alien planet and cleared up some questions I had about the humans. I would have liked to have that information in the first chapter.

The author’s note for Chapter 1 asks about characterization. Here I’m going to start with my usual advice in workshopping drafts: Don’t worry about the finer points of the prose until the draft is done. Let the words come in any way that works. Revision is the time for pruning and polish.

So, if the novel is still in progress, set the comments below aside. Save them for later, when it’s time to get down to the word and sentence level.

Characterization has a lot of layers. How characters act, think, and feel, the choices they make, their mistakes, their motivations, are all part of the process. But the foundation of it all is the words, the choices the author makes, the way characters are described, how they talk, what they do—and especially what kinds of things they do or say over and over.

There’s a lot of repetition in this draft, and certain words and concepts repeat over and over. I particularly noticed the variations on shaking, shuddering, and trembling. These words were what I call frequent-flier words. It’s a good idea to run a global search on these, and think about which can be changed into other words and concepts, and which can be disposed of altogether.

The impression I got as I read was that the characters’ shuddering and shaking (and stammering also, which is a form of verbal shakiness) was meant to convey fear and anxiety. Clearly it’s a terrible situation, but it’s not completely clear in the draft how terrible it is, or why both Corva and Moonelsa are so visibly upset. By the end I had a better sense of what was going on, but I would have liked to know a bit more a bit earlier: what happened to Moonelsa and why this hatching is so different from all other hatchings.

Another aspect of this is the way Moonelsa is described as a very powerful being. Corva is in awe of her, and we’re told that Corva’s powers are nowhere near as strong. But Moonelsa herself is so shaky and trembly and timid, so generally ineffectual, that there’s a disconnect between what we’re told about her and what we see.

This is a great opportunity for strengthening the characterization. This mighty magical being has been reduced to a quivering wreck, cut off from her people and denied their support and their rituals. If this is made clearer, and we get more of a sense of how Corva feels about it (and how Moonelsa has changed from what she was before the humans captured her), the scene will be that much stronger. We can see what an appalling thing has been done to Moonelsa, and we’ll understand better how and why Corva is the only person who will (or can?) help her.

Best of luck with this novel. The concept intrigues me and the characters and situations have a lot of potential. I really want to know what happens next, and how Corva is going to deal with the humans who have invaded her world and violated one of its most powerful magical beings.

–Judith Tarr