Editor’s Choice Review November 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.

Case Race Part 1 by Bobby Harrell

I was pleased to see this story segment, because I’ve been kind of a broken record in Editor’s Choices about “offstaging” or portraying key actions in a story through characters talking about them afterward—and I’ve also been reflecting that every rule or guideline (since writing rules are really the Pirates’ Code) will sooner or later have its exception.

The opening of this story, for me, is one of those exceptions. Normally I would encourage an author to go for immediate experience: write the scene as it happens, for more vivid effect. But here, opening after the fact and revealing the backstory in stages helps build suspense and creates a mystery. What really happened to Label? How will the stranger aspects shape the story as it moves forward?

These are the kinds of questions an author should want the reader to ask, to keep her turning the pages. Breaking a “rule” allows us to ask them, by revealing the backstory in discrete installments while developing the characters and building the world around them. By the time the story moves into present time, we have a sense of where we are and who is traveling with us, and a set of questions that we hope will be answered as the story continues.

Tl;dr: If it serves a distinct narrative purpose, and the story works well when told this way, you can break any “rule” in the book. Pirates’ Code.

I do have some questions and confusions that might be answered in revision. (Because editors, even more than readers, always have questions.)

First, Label’s name. That’s as much a personal quirk as anything else; I’m sensitive to the power of names. Which leads me to read her name as “Label on a bottle,” though I suspect it may be more of a French version, shortened from La Belle and pronounced that way? Because I’m reading it the way I am, I keep bouncing a little bit out of the story, wondering how and why she received the label, and what it means in her world.

I’m not quite clear on what a case is, as well. There are bits and pieces, but I think a little bit of description might be helpful. Show more detail about her getting into her case, perhaps? Let us have a few more visuals?

The same applies to what the race is, how it works, and where it happens. I was confused for quite a while as to whether the race was real or virtual, whether the case was an actual vehicle/body armor or a sophisticated VR device. By the time the segment ended, I was pretty sure it was a real-world race, but I’m still wondering if I was missing something.

The sparseness of description mostly works, but I think a little more here and there will clarify parts of the worldbuilding. For example I wondered how the garage could only be a meter tall—are humans that much smaller in this universe than they are here? I’d have liked just a bit of explanation there.

One more thing caught my attention, and that’s the ethnicity of some characters’ accents. I get the worldbuilding element of populations preserving their dialect, but there’s an art to portraying that dialect that I’m missing here. I really am glad the text didn’t try to go full-on phonetic dialect; that’s so hard to read and so difficult to do without tripping over questions of racism and classism. But the ms. has further to go, I think, in evoking the sound and sense of these characters’ speech. It’s almost there with certain word choices, bits of distinctive vocabulary. It just needs a touch more.

I might suggest studying these dialects, really listening to them. Vocabulary and diction are part of it, but so are sentence constructions, rhythm and flow, the way people put their words together. If the rhythm is right, and if the choice of words and idioms is likewise on point, the reader can get an amazingly clear sense of how the dialect works, even when the text is written in more or less standard English. It’s like a line drawing: catching the handful of elements that convey the sense of the whole.

As to the question in the Author’s Note: I think it’s a solid start. It makes me want to read on, get to know the characters and the world better, and see how the story unfolds.

—Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review November 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.

Chapter One, Thy Gods Awaken, Part One: Witch Queen by Tony Valiulis

I very much appreciate the inclusion of the synopsis with this chapter. It lets me see how the chapter fits into the whole, and how the author envisions that whole. Synopses are Not easy; kudos for attempting it, and extra chocolate for including it.

It’s a good synopsis, too. Says what it needs to, rounds up the main events, introduces the characters and sets up their relationships to one another. Well done.

The chapter is an interesting segue from it, with quite a different overall voice and tone. There’s a lot of emotionally laden language, lots of strong active words and deliberately hard-hitting imagery: Kayla snaps awake, she’s drenched with sweat, she’s stabbed with needles of panic. She’s nauseated, we’re told more than once, and given the reasons for it: nightmares and terrifying visions. Her mouth melts, her lips curl, her heart screams.

I’m a big fan of active writing, but I’m also a fan of Just Enough To Get The Job Done. Writing is a constant balancing act between not conveying quite enough, and stating the case VERY VERY STRONGLY.

Here I think that dialing it back a few notches would retain Kayla’s vivid perception of the world, but allow the narrative to move along more smoothly. If we’re constantly bombarded with powerful images, we become inured to them; then when something really needs to stand out, there’s nowhere to go. All the big! Bold! IMAGERY! is taken.

There’s good stuff here. I like the riff on the ancient and dishonorable mirror-description trope: we’re teased with it, then it becomes a plot driver all on its own, showing us the blond (note spelling; it’s a French word, and there’s no feminine –e when describing a male) dream boy. If Kayla’s narrative up to this is toned down, there’s more room for her to react strongly here.

I’d also note how often Kayla’s thoughts take on a life of their own—in one case, explicitly so. They drift, they float. She jerks and pushes them. They’re personified, as if they exist apart from her.

This can happen when we try to focus tightly on a viewpoint: we filter it. We remind the reader that she’s reading a narrative about a fictional character, and here’s the character, this is where we’re standing, this is our camera angle. Rather than experiencing events directly, the reader is pushed back a step.

Often if we remove that filter, we find that we’ve not only pared down the word count, we’ve brought the story closer to the reader. Kayla is in a state of confusion, that comes across clearly. If her thoughts are jumping all over the place, the reader can follow her; can feel them as she feels them, without needing to be told that she’s our eye on this world.

The same applies to the repeated details: her nausea, her feelings about the villagers, her reactions to the boy, her reflections on what’s about to happen today. A little more subtlety, a lowering of the emotional temperature, a general calming down, can actually be more effective in conveying the strength of her feelings. It’s good old Less Is More.

This might also help with the general comments about portraying a female character. I like very much that so much of this world is female—that there’s so clear an effort to counteract the tendency of many writers to create worlds with a Strong Female Character, but everyone else is default-male. This is good. I applaud.

But because Kayla is so emotionally over the top, she runs into the problem of the Emotional Female. It’s not intentional, I don’t think, but it’s a trope and a tradition, and the strength of her reactions would tend to trigger it.

What I might suggest is an exercise I’ve tried a few times myself: genderbending a few chapters. Write her as male and see if anything changes. Do his reactions come across differently? Does he feel things in a different way? Do you as author feel differently about him? Can you translate this back to the original Kayla?

Women are really just people, but our culture treats them as Other. Writing them as people (i.e. male) can sometimes shake the assumptions loose. It may be worth a try, at least to see if Kayla is coming across as intended.

Best of luck with this ms.! It has lots of potential.

–Judith Tarr

Editors Choice Review November 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.

There’s Someone In The House by Johann Thorsson

The opening chapter of There’s Someone in the House shows a major reversal, starting out with a husband, Michael Stillwater, eagerly arriving home from a business trip to see his wife, and ending with–I think–the husband, possessed by some entity–killing his wife. The smooth flow and building suspense keep me reading to the end of the chapter.

The chapter also has some nice writing that draws me in. The ends of the first two paragraphs–“It bored him” and “A bit of an enigma, called in for specialized jobs”–provide intriguing hints that Michael is not the standard protagonist. Once he gets home, some of the descriptions help to evoke fear. I particularly like “Her voice was a rush of leaves,” which I can actually hear, and the paragraph in which Michael hears a soft hello, “Deceptively quiet and menacing, heard like you ‘hear’ the words someone mouths from across a crowded room.” That is very evocative.

So the chapter has a lot going for it. I found after reading it, though, that I didn’t have any urge to continue. Pulling readers through and leaving them satisfied can work well for a short story. But a novel chapter, especially a first chapter, needs to leave readers eager to turn the page. I think there are several elements in the chapter that could be revised to help make that happen. Of course, it’s difficult to know exactly what to suggest without knowing where the novel is headed, but I’ll try to cover various possibilities.

One reason I don’t feel a strong need to continue reading is that I’m not attached to Michael, and I’m not terribly upset about his wife’s death. If I really cared about Michael or I really cared about Ellen and couldn’t walk away without a better understanding of her death, then I’d want to keep reading. But I barely know either of them. The first two paragraphs tell me some interesting things about Michael’s work life, but they don’t show Michael. It’s exposition, what is often called “driving to the story,” or in other cases “walking to the story,” “flying to the story,” or “riding to the story.” This means that the story starts with the character on the way to a place, and that place is where the true story will begin. As he travels, the character thinks about his life, filling the reader in on various facts. This is generally not a strong way to open a story or chapter. These paragraphs do get me interested in Michael’s work, but they don’t allow me to get attached to Michael, because I don’t see him in action. And once he arrives home, all of that information seems irrelevant. He becomes what seems to me a much more standard protagonist. He doesn’t act in any way that seems connected to his life as a contract lawyer to the stars. If his profession is going to be important later in the novel–and I suspect it is because it’s included here–then the novel could open with a scene of Michael doing his job, creating suspense over this false celebrity meltdown or some other issue, and making us care about Michael (either in a positive or negative way) by seeing how he operates in this milieu. This could help set up some plot elements that will become important in later chapters and create suspense that will make us want to keep reading after Chapter 1. It can also make us care more about Michael, so when he’s possessed, we’ll be upset. Ellen could even call several times during the meeting, but Michael can’t take the calls, so there can be conflict between the two parts of Michael’s life. Or maybe it appears that Ellen is calling, but when he checks the voicemail, he hears only a weird whisper he can’t understand, and when he calls her back, she says she never called. (And once he gets home, he can be getting calls regarding his job while he’s searching for the intruder. Job’s like Michael’s generally don’t limit themselves to work hours and can easily be all-consuming.)

For me, starting a horror novel with a character being killed feels quite familiar and gives me the sense that the author doesn’t have faith in his ability to get my attention without killing someone. But the writing in this chapter indicates to me that the author could definitely pull me into a novel with a scene in which no one dies. So why not establish Michael and get readers attached to him, and show his relationship with Ellen, so we can care about her too.

Another reason I don’t finish the chapter eager to turn the page is that the plot feels self-contained. It provides the reversal I mentioned above, and then ends with Michael discovering what has happened. I’m thinking that Michael is going to be arrested for his wife’s murder and go to jail for life. That doesn’t leave me a lot of reason to keep reading. I’m not terribly curious about who possessed Michael–I’m imagining it’s some dead, disgruntled celebrity client. But I don’t really care. I’ve read lots of possession stories, so for me, that’s the least interesting aspect of the chapter. I was more interested when there was a mysterious shadowy presence in the house that whispered to them. But if the chapter ended in an unexpected way that shed new light on either the characters or the possession plot, I could be excited to continue. If I had some intriguing suspicion, such that his wife made this happen so she could get revenge on Michael for cheating on her, I would want to keep reading to see if my theory was accurate. Or if Michael had an unusual reaction to events, such as he buried his wife in the backyard, or jumped in the car and headed out of the country, or called an enemy over to the house to frame him for the murder, or the experience gave him an idea how to solve the celebrity problem he was working on earlier, I would be eager to turn the page to follow his character and see how that played out. Or if there was some clue or strange element discovered at the end, such as his wife’s body parts were arranged to spell out a message, or some old (and lost) item of Michael’s was left beside the body, then I would want to keep reading to learn what that meant.

Thinking about plot on a larger scale, if Michael is the protagonist of the novel, the end of the chapter feels like the end of Act 1. I feel that he’ll change his goal in the next chapter (which will start a new act) to figuring out who possessed him and getting revenge on that person. But Act 1 (in a three-act novel) usually involves the first 25% or so of a novel, so things are feeling a bit out of balance. The novel feels like it’s rushing through important Act 1 elements. Having Act 1 build suspense through about a quarter of the way through the novel allows the crisis that ends Act 1 to have more power. The other possibility I see is that Michael is not the protagonist and this chapter is playing the role of a prologue–establishing an evil that will go after the protagonist. I don’t think that’s where this is going, but if it is, that’s an overused structure in horror that I wouldn’t recommend. I think it would still be better to develop Michael over several scenes/chapters so we care more when he’s faced with a possible intruder, possession, and murder.

I enjoyed many elements in this chapter. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review October 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 Totem by Kevin Zarem

This novel tackles a classic theme: the average guy who finds himself in seriously not-average situations. He doesn’t transform into a cockroach or (in the first chapter at least) zap off into a distant space empire, but his shifts in reality are if anything more disconcerting because they’re so small.

Stephan is very average. He’s of average age, in an average American town (Norman Rockwell version), living an average life. The precipitating event of the novel is one many readers can easily relate to: the death of a beloved pet (a dog of a popular breed, the Golden Retriever). The shift—via knock on the head (a classic that goes all the way back to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)—becomes immediately evident when the dog’s fate changes from death to allergies.

Stephan’s world is lovingly constructed and meticulously described. His interactions are hyper-realistic, recording the throat-clearing and the filler dialogue as well as the bits of speech that move the story forward. When the shift comes, it’s quiet; understated. There’s no big blowup and no huge shift in the universe. Things have changed, but Stephan has to take inventory in order to reckon the extent of the change.

A concept this apparently simple is in fact very difficult. The closer a writer comes to the lived experience of his readers, the more exacting they are about the accuracy of the details. The narrative has to be spot on on multiple fronts: plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, tone and emotion, as well as the setting and construction of the world.

It’s particularly important to regulate the emotional temperature of the chapter. By that I mean the choice of elements that go into the narrative, and the way in which they’re developed, as well as the level of feeling and the sense of payoff. How high are the stakes, and are they too much, too little, or just right?

In a novel like this, the key is deliberately low, and the effects are intentionally subtle. That asks a lot of the writer, because the prose has to be on point. The death of the dog needs just the right amount of pathos, just the right level of grief and loss—and no more, if no less. The characters’ reactions should be just right, and the world they live in has to walk a fine line between deliberate artifice and unintentional caricature.

I would suggest trimming the descriptions and reducing the number of times information is repeated, for clarity and to help the story move forward more smoothly. I would also recommend minimizing the amount of filler in the dialogue—greetings, small talk, people telling each other what they’re doing or about to do. I think you want the sense of a very well blocked out story with highly realistic elements, but I would prune it just a hair.

At the same time I would recommend toning down the emotions. Not so far that they disappear, but aim for a more subtle and nuanced sense of what Stephan and the people around him are feeling. Ask yourself if you’re laying things on a bit thick—particularly in the sequences about the dog. Are they going on too long? Do facts and images repeat themselves? Are the characters overstating the extent of the tragedy? Would it be more effective if it were less strongly stated?

The answer could be no, the story wants to be just a little over the top. But how far over should it go? The rule I like to follow is the one we used to apply in college: doing the bare minimum of work required to get the grades we wanted.

Take for example the reference to Norman Rockwell. It’s clear, but is it too clear? Does it lean too hard on the white-American-Fifties-mythic-normal of the town? Or is that exactly what you want to convey, with its ambiguities as well as its apparent simplicity?

These are the questions to ask throughout, in each scene, and with each character and action or reaction. You’ve set yourself the challenge of telling a fantastical story within the context of the purely American-normal and the consensually real. That makes it even more important to keep track of how you’re creating your effects.

Getting the emotional temperature exactly right takes practice, especially in a narrative with a high degree of difficulty. But it’s worth it, both for the lessons it teaches in craft, and the quality of the result. Or to put it more plainly, better writing, better storytelling, happier readers. Good things all around.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review October 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.

Spoons by Robert Tarrant

“Spoons” has a fresh, delightful premise. A ladle gathers spoons from around the world for their ascension, and they attack a few humans who know too much. The story has some great absurdist humor, as when the spoons start spelling out messages to the humans. Their messages made me laugh out loud. The story also provides some vivid and entertaining descriptions of the spoons in action. I enjoyed reading the story quite a bit, but I do think it could be made stronger.

For me, the story seems to be caught between two possibilities rather than fully realizing either one. Stories with prominent, original ideas (like spoons attacking) generally work best in one of two ways. One possibility is to simply focus the story on showing the idea and ending the story. That way, you highlight the story’s main strength. To move “Spoons” in this direction, the plot needs to be simplified. Instead of moving between two settings, it could take place in just one. Instead of having three characters, the story could have just two, or even one. Instead of six scenes, it could have one to three. For example, in a three-scene version, the first scene could show Avery, the main character, at home, trying to eat ice cream and being attacked by the spoon. He might trap the spoon. The second scene could show Avery discovering a bunch of spoons coming out of his drawers to free the imprisoned spoon, and they have a bigger battle. Avery could defeat them and think his problems are over. Then the huge flood of spoons arrive with the ladle. They tell him he knows too much and must be destroyed, and then they kill him, or he flees and gives up his house to them. This structure would focus on showing us the unusual, fun idea. Such stories are often pretty short. A flash piece or something up to 1800 words or so could work well.

The other possibility is to make the story about more than the idea. There are a number of ways to do this, but one common way involves developing the characters more and making readers really care about them. The current characters work to show the idea, but they don’t really make me believe in them or care. That would be fine if the story were shorter and more idea focused, but as it is, I find the story appealing to emotions I don’t have, as when we learn that Martha has been tormented by the spoons (and we should feel compassion for her) and when Harold is killed (and we should feel upset about that). Those moments fall flat for me, and I find myself wishing the story was more like possibility 1, showing me the cool spoon idea and then ending. But if I had gotten to know Harold better, if I had understood why he and his wife suffer this tragic lack of communication, then I could care about them. While I know some facts about Avery, I don’t feel I know him. He seems to become a rather standard protagonist once the action begins. This type of story would require two plot threads: one with Avery struggling toward some goal and one with Avery fighting the spoons. The first plot thread would allow us to get to know Avery more and to get to know any other characters. We would also need more connective elements to further develop the story, such as theme, symbolism, and resonance (all elements of subtext). To develop these, it may be helpful to ask some questions. For example, what makes Avery the best protagonist for this story? What does fighting spoons mean to him? How is his reaction to the spoons going to be more interesting than any other possible character’s reaction? Perhaps we would cut Avery from the story and make Harold the protagonist, so we can narrow our cast to two characters, Harold and his wife. He’s a bitter skeptic whose wife is falling into dementia. The woman he truly loved married someone else, so he married his second choice, Martha. She can’t help him at the hotel anymore and spends all day buying expensive items on the Internet that she doesn’t even remember buying. These meaningless purchases are sending them into bankruptcy. Harold has to search the house every night when he comes home for new items that have been delivered and return them. In this context, Harold’s discovery of a new set of spoons and a big expensive ladle carries more emotional weight. These items–and especially the spoons, the most expensive purchase Martha has made–embody his unhappy relationship. The spoons work both on the surface level of story as an expensive purchase for him to return. And they work on the level of subtext as a symbol of everything that is weighing him down and destroying his life. Then when the spoons come to life and attack him, the event is more emotional and more tied to his character. He must return them (the way he might wish to return his wife), but they won’t let him. The spoons might kill Harold and triumph, which would make the story a tragedy, with Harold overcome by this meaningless chaos of his wife’s purchases. Or perhaps Harold is about to be killed when Martha helps him, destroying the ladle, so they both survive–and Harold is stuck back where he began. Or Martha could help the spoons, and Harold could take the ladle and kill her, ending up a servant of the spoons.

Anyway, that’s just an example of how this second possibility might work. There are many ways to develop the story in that direction.

Either possibility could generate a compelling story. Moving it closer to the first possibility would allow your idea to shine out all the stronger; moving it closer to the second possibility could deepen readers’ engagement and emotions.

But the story has many strengths as it is; I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review October 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.

Beneath The Canyons Chapter 1 by Kyra Halland

It takes a lot of guts to put up an already published series for critique. I salute this author, and applaud the decision. Respect; admiration.

“Six guns and sorcery,” as a subset of Weird West, is one of my favorite genres. I chose this chapter because the author’s note asked good, concise questions, and because what happens in Chapter 1 plays a major role in the reader’s reaction to the rest. If the opening does its job, she’ll keep reading. If not, she’ll move on to the next book in the pile.

That doesn’t mean the story has to start with a literal bang, or that the action has to be breakneck in order to keep the reader reading. The first chapter’s job is to lure the reader in and give her enough information to avoid confusion, but not so much that she can’t process it all. It’s always a balancing act—but because this is the reader’s first encounter with the story and the characters, it has to work a little bit harder to get the job done.

This opening is distinctly exposition-forward. There’s a lot of worldbuilding visible, a lot of backstory, a lot of description and scene-setting. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear the author has done her homework.

The down side is that each time the narrative stops for exposition, the story stops as well. There are large quantities of information to process before we’re invested in the plot or the characters. We get a bit of action, stop, have things explained to us, move on a little bit, stop again, get another explanation, and so on.

The pace picks up midway through, as Silas enters the town and observes the interactions of its inhabitants. Eventually he interacts with them himself, and then the story starts to pick up speed.

By that point however, the reader’s impression of Silas is that he’s rather remote and disengaged from the world around him. We know what he sees, and we know what he knows, in considerable detail, but he takes a while to participate in the events he’s recording. He’s an observer but not, initially, a protagonist, i.e., the character who moves the story forward.

What I would suggest, to tighten up the opening and position Silas more in the foreground of the action, would be to apply Turtledove’s Law. For every five hundred details, pick the two or three that best encapsulate the scene. Leave the rest to implication. Pare down the exposition, keep the narrative moving, show just enough background and setting to ground the reader in time and space.

This will ground Silas as well. With less exposition and backstory, his role becomes clearer: we have time to see what he’s doing there, how he’s using his magic and why, and what he has to do to keep from getting in trouble for it. This gives us a sense of his personality, who he is and what drives him. We still catch hints of where he comes from and get a good glimpse of his surroundings, but not so much that we lose track of the story that’s being told right here and now.

It can be really hard to let go of our lovely worldbuilding, but it’s all still there, and the astute reader will pick them up from context. Some of them may emerge later, as they’re relevant. If they don’t, it’s likely the story doesn’t need them. It’s got everything it needs to keep the reader informed, and to keep her turning pages.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Reviews October 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 Advantage Is Decadent And Depraved by Bobby Harrell

I had fun with “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: it’s stuffed full of personality, quickly builds the kind of universe that spills off the page, and puts forward a sharp critique of planetary SF institutions that feels organic without ever stopping the sense of adventure. It does, however, not always keep its pacing steady, and so this month I’d like to talk about ways to efficiently pack that information in without slowing the pace of an adventure story down.

“The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” leads with some great sensory metaphors—”Old air scrubber fluid, weeks-old body odor and that frying bacon smell of cramped humans floating in a beer can” gives readers an immediate sense of the tongue-in-cheek voice of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”, shows us the core of Eileen through her own personal metaphor set, and tells us what kind of wonder space travel is in this universe: in a word, it’s not. This is a space future built on work and parts that break down, a messed-up pragmatic space future, and a character who’s easily as broken-down, pragmatic, and messed-up. That’s a lot of work and scene-setting to pack into a few tidy lines, and on top of that, they’re fun.

The worldbuilding, overall, in “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” really works for me. There’s a great balance being struck between getting in all the technical and biological details that give a science fictional future verisimilitude and not letting them stall out, drown, or overshadow the narrative. The amount of detail about this world that Eileen works in while moving the plot forward gives it a real texture: a future that’s not just unevenly distributed, but actively innovating, quietly diverse, and on the move.

Those details do great work at also being thematic: phrases like “that industrial glue smell people mistake for new” are great little tells for what’s really up with the Advantage, and where this story is going to go. And the little spotlight on Lantham’s bourbon as he tells Eileen that her drug use makes her untrustworthy is a funny, sarcastic, and really effective tell.

The one exception is the section marked by a note regarding a better backstory, or less of one. I’d agree that less is more; the information dump in that section stands out as clumsier than the rest of the work in the piece, and I’m not sure laying recent history out in its entirety sends the story forward. There are good insights in that section, but they’re drowned in the exposition.

There’s more of a mixed gift in Eileen’s narrative voice. While it’s a real core strength, I wonder if there’s some advantage to be gained here by trimming it back somewhat. She lays on the Hunter S. Thompson/Spider Jerusalem gonzo journalist schtick rather thick, both in narrative voice and her dialogue, and as workshop alumnus Rae Carson says, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is really five. It’s contrasts—in voice, in style, in intensity—that stand out to readers in prose, and I’d suggest trying out a draft that builds in some contrasting levels in Eileen’s voice. Trim out some of the fourth-wall-breaking direct address and some of the jokes that don’t quite land (I’d mention the horn one specifically), and build in some quiet parts, some more transparent narrative, and watch the quirks, character, sardonic asides, and keen observation stand out that much more in comparison.

I’d also suggest some light trims on the sentence level. There are places—notably when Eileen’s going to and attending the meet-and-greet, getting drugs from the doctor in the med bay, explaining the Simulation Chamber, and the hallucination—where she’s functionally saying the same things twice or explaining unnecessarily to the readers, but not in ways that build out character, voice, or atmosphere. There’s a palpable drag in those sequences, and the same level of implication that “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” uses when talking about worldbuilding and technical specs will work when talking about people and relationships, too.

That drag echoes on the more structural level of “The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved”: there’s potential for much stronger pacing in the middle of the piece. While the first few scenes of the piece are strong, directed, and goal-oriented, once Eileen goes on her personal tour of the Advantage, the pacing becomes episodic; each discovery or encounter doesn’t quite lead logically or string together with the next to build anything bigger. While the fakeout with the doctor leads somewhere, the interaction with Delta, the Simulation Room, and Eileen’s time with the jet never quite pay off in any fashion, and they’re all basically cancelled, in terms of consequences, by the pirates. Lantham mentions them, but it’s obvious he was going to have it out for Eileen anyway; they’re not quite carrying their weight in the overall piece.

Ultimately, they’re distractions from what Eileen’s suit and Rabbit were already doing—and while it’s easy to believe that this was part of her plan all along, to play a trick on Lantham and the Fleet, it’s a little harder to believe because the readers don’t get enough subtextual clues to that plan to see it click together in hindsight. Playing a trick on characters fits perfectly with her personality, but when the trick’s also on the readers, by omission or otherwise, it feels less organic and less satisfying. I’d suggest building in a trail for Eileen’s plan: one that’s slight and constant enough that it connects when she announces it, and builds reader satisfaction, instead of chipping away at it.

With the exception of a somewhat light landing on the ending—that much story deserves a little more weight in the last beat—”The Advantage is Decadent and Depraved” is doing some fabulous work for an early draft. I’d love to see what it accomplishes after revisions, and best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Review September 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 King Of Hands by Henry Szabranski

There is a lot to admire in “The King of Hands”: a truly menacing-feeling underground horde of hands, an atmosphere reminiscent of Junji Ito, and a less-loaded twist on the trajectory of the standard Lovecraftian tale. However, there’s also a lot of room to explore the story’s potential, and several ways “The King of Hands” isn’t quite living up to its promise. This month, I’d like to talk about walking the line between evoking a genre and sticking too close to its established tropes, and a core technique for crafting fresh original takes on story elements that have been used frequently before.

“The King of Hands” has definite atmosphere. It creates immediate tension from the first sentence with plain, unadorned prose: stark enough to build a feeling of darkness, a heartbeat pace, and the hyper-narrow focus of mortal fear. Its move to the wider, more impressionistic and colourful flashback of the second scene just emphasizes the realism of that danger through contrast.

However, not diving directly into flashback is a fairly common piece of writing advice, and “The King of Hands” demonstrates, in its early scenes, why: The first scene is gripping, evocative, and has a definite conflict and hook, but the more time we spend in flashback, in action that isn’t progressing or solving the issue that’s caught readers’ attention, the more the flashbacks come to feel like a delay. Before we reach the inventiveness of the Temple of the Hands and interesting—and unexplored—question of why Marew is carving hands too, we reach the core issue with “The King of Hands”: it’s not yet moving beyond its own set of tropes.

There’s a strong feeling in the worldbuilding of “The King of Hands” of corners being cut. There are a lot of very familiar narrative shorthands at play in its 5,500 words: drunk father with belt who blames a child for his mother’s death, kids daring each other to play where they aren’t supposed to, the frightened narrator who is actually murderous, sibling rivalry, secret societies underground, the question of whether the protagonist is insane or brushing the unknown, and the inciting incident of Thom’s fall being untelegraphed sexual jealousy—and on their wedding day, no less, and with his brother, no less.

These are all somewhat well-used horror tropes, some calling back to seventies and eighties pulps and some directly back to Lovecraft or Poe. The sheer accumulation of familiar ideas makes them all feel more like signposts—the beginnings of ideas which haven’t yet been finished. The sheer amount of sources for them make the piece feel as if it can’t quite decide which story it wants to be. Thom, Tania, and Marew’s childhood escapades have a faint feel of modern suburbia to them, but their town is giving off cues of a second-world fantasy location (summerwine, the general technology level of a standard Renaissance fantasy world), and Marew’s tourist business takes us even farther out, into small-town territory. I’m unsure where we are, in time, space, society, or cosmology.

The unfortunate cumulative effect is visible in “The King of Hands”: when enough corners are cut in crafting our worlds, we start to run out of paper.

The interesting question is: When many stories use the same tropes, why do they feel tropey in “The King of Hands”?

One answer, I’d suggest, is the not-yet-coalesced state of the story’s narrative—and it may be possible to address by moving from the abstract to the specific.

We’ve talked before about the concept of using the right detail, rather than several details that outline vaguely—or try to suggest—a character’s experience. Choosing one evocative, illustrative detail is frequently more effective because it’s personal—this is this character’s experience—and that personalness makes the detail, and thus the story, feel concrete, real, and true. Detail work is a portable skill: it applies just as strongly to working with tropes and archetypes.

The major complaint readers and critiquers have about tropes is not that they aren’t original thinking: as writers, we work in a field that’s built on thousands of years of storytelling, trying to tap into cultural ideas about how the world works, so very little of what we do is going to be purely original. But the underlying issue is whether something feels original—which is to say unique, which is to say specific. Does this story feel fresh? Does it feel like someone’s concrete, actual experience instead of a shorthand for experiences kinds of people have?

That’s where the question of one evocative detail comes in. I’d suggest going through a new draft of “The King of Hands” with that filter in mind: Instead of the fairly standard idea of “drunk father with belt”, what was Thom’s experience with his father like? What did Thom’s father call him, when he brought that belt down, and what was the look on his face? What colour was the belt buckle? What did his right eye do when he was angry? What’s the father’s drink of choice, and how did it smell on his breath? How did Thom feel before, during, and after? With a little thought—and a few narrative decisions—the shorthand photocopy of a drunk parent dealing out a beating becomes something rich, vivid, real and original because it’s been given specificity.

There are interesting questions in this piece, and a potentially interesting take on what happens when one transports the Lovecraftian mode into a very different setting. However, they’re in need of unearthing, and as the story moves from the general to the specific, they’ll likely attain some focus—and make it clear which direction “The King of Hands” should take in the draft that follows.

As it stands, “The King of Hands” is a horror story—but what is this horror story? I’m looking forward to the answer.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review September 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 Radioactive Four–Chapter 1 by N. Howl

This is an interesting beginning, very intense, and packed with strong sensory details. The protagonist whose memory is broken, whose experience of the world comes in fragments, has quite a lot of potential to grow and discover herself as the novel progresses.

The logistics of the scenes are somewhat of a work in progress. As I read, I wondered how the scientist and Banton could be unaware of Alia’s dome shattering, and how she managed to escape so easily, even though she was captured in fairly short order. There seems to be lack of security there, that doesn’t match the hints of what’s going on and the importance of Alia to the—whatever it is. A little more clarity might help, and perhaps some rethinking of the setup.

What may also help in the revision phase is to recalibrate the emotional volume of this chapter. There’s a visible effort to create vivid images and evoke strong feelings. It’s a worthy ambition, and there are some memorable moments. But, as with so much else in the art and craft of writing, a little can go quite a long way.

Emotion, like physical action, needs its quiet phases as well as its moments of high intensity. It’s the ebb and flow that draws the story along: now more subtle, now dialed up to 11. Fictional characters, like real-life humans, need time to relax and regroup in among the high drama.

In this chapter, the volume is consistently turned all the way up. From the very beginning, Alia’s teeth chatter, her mind rattles, electricity bolts, pain erupts—crescendo after crescendo. Everything stabs, jolts, shakes, writhes, convulses, explodes.

We are so often exhorted to make our prose vivid and memorable, to choose strong words over weak or neutral ones. That’s good advice for the most part. Prose that’s emotionally flat is prose that isn’t doing its job. Characters can’t round themselves out, scenes never quite come alive.

But it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction, too. Writing, like life, is a balancing act. We can turn the volume down at intervals and tone down the word choices, go for the neutral, give ourselves and our readers a break from the constant percussion.

It’s like a pause in a storm. The interlude of quiet focuses the mind and brings the stronger parts into higher relief. Then when the wind and thunder come back, they’re that much more powerful.

If every other word is a Big! Loud! STRONG! word, they cancel each other out. Image piled on image over the course of a chapter or a novel can have a numbing effect. And if the images themselves tumble over the top–“Images stabbed Alia’s mind, searing from nose to brain like an inhale of water,” “the man’s eyes rolled back and he slumped like slime down glass,” “Alia bolted up, her brain rattling inside her heavy head”—we’re pummeled with metaphors, till they start to blur into one another.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but the strongest prose is carefully measured and balanced with neutral words and phrases. When the volume does go up, it hits all the harder for the lower volume around it. One good, vivid image stays in the mind, and the emotion that image evokes resonates through the whole scene.

What I would suggest in revision would be to pare ruthlessly in the first pass. Keep one strong image per paragraph, or be even more sparing with them. See how far the prose can be trimmed and the volume turned down without falling flat. Focus on what’s essential, what must be there. Allow downbeats and pauses. Let the words (and the characters) breathe. The action will still move at a rapid clip and the emotions will still punch hard when they need to.

And if some of what came out needs to go (judiciously) back in, that’s good, too. As I said: it’s all about balance.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Climbing The Motherman — Part 1/2 by Henry Szabranski

I was drawn to “Climbing the Motherman” by its intense, immense sense of scale: a wild, weird, airborne world full of razorbugs, peaks, arteries—and yet one that didn’t feel out of readers’ grasp. This month, I’d like to talk about juxtaposition, what readers expect to see, and how we can play off that to create worldbuilding that stays familiar even when it’s strange.

“Climbing the Motherman” leads with its strengths: haunting imagery, a mythic cadence to its prose, and a gorgeously immense sense of scale. From the very first paragraphs, there’s a juxtaposition of large and small: the distant bodies of the Maiden, Hunchback, and the Motherman itself contrasted with Percher’s small, nimble, delicate body; the giants as, themselves, small components of a huge and unknown world sheathed in mist. There are multiple layers of awe at play in this piece’s worldbuilding, and all of them channeled well through Percher’s fascination with the giants—and his familiarity with the Motherman grounding readers in his own “usual”.

We’ve talked in previous months about how tension can be a tool to spark and maintain reader engagement, and there are a few sources of productive tension in “Climbing the Motherman”. The most notable one is the Motherman himself, and the tension between the idea of body and the idea of world. There’s enough in the geography of the Motherman for readers to recognize as a person, but the tribe’s use of cavities as homes and arteries as tunnels, the geography of a mountain in the form of a man, create a fascinating sense of body as topography, as landmark. It’s a dissonance that fascinates, partially because it’s not explained to readers, but worked in as an organic part of Percher’s universe.

That tension and juxtaposition resonate into the prose level. “Climbing the Motherman” has a strong, evocative sense of word choice that summons instant imagery but never quite in the way readers might expect: “the graves of cook fires” and “leaning forward so that it crouched upon its knuckles and its ridged spine notched the sky” were particular favourites of mine. There’s solid threading of Percher’s own worldview in the choice of metaphors, as well: describing a sky as “flesh-pink” tells readers about the components of his world. It’s not the expected metaphor, but it’s one that’s easily understandable to readers, and the just-strange-enoughness makes it work well enough to not stop readers cold, but still evoke a sense of elsewhere.

There’s also a juxtaposition in terms of Percher’s status as a slightly unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to his attitude toward Skink. I’m impressed by the pervasive and subtle indications “Climbing the Motherman” throws out that there’s less difference than Percher might think between the ways he uses Skink as a prop for his self-image and Broc’s more overt statement that her name’s whatever he pleases. The growth of his attraction to her, once she’s the only woman left, is downright disturbing when mirrored with Broc’s flip over into calling her “Little Ma”. It’s quite apparent that Percher has no idea who he is, or who he’s dealing with—and continually misses that Skink is the only character who reliably knows what she’s doing here. He’s not half as good as he thinks or wants to be, and that complicates the piece interestingly.

However, I’d call some attention to how Skink’s portrayal ultimately ends up: With Skink’s main motivating desire being to walk—as if she’s nothing more, ultimately, than her injury, not a person with wants or needs outside it—and how fulfilling that desire, taking her power, leads to crashing the entire Motherman. Yes, it works out, but there’s a quite damaging trope in there: that all someone with a disability wants is to not have that disability. I’d take a second look at that sequence, and consider carefully how it would read to readers living their own lives with disability.

I’d also take a careful look at Broc and how he’s characterized. He’s written with a different dialogue cadence than Percher or Skink, one that’s stereotypically less educated, and as he’s the undisputable antagonist here—one who’s taken down largely because he’s obstinate and almost unbelievably stupid—I’d suggest giving some attention as to whose real-life dialogue pattern he’s using, and whether that’s going to perpetuate any particularly unkind stereotypes. While a lot of “Climbing the Motherman” uses shorthands as a positive, to build bridges with readers, it’s crucial that our particular choices of shorthands be ones that are examined, and, well, chosen.

Aside from those questions of characterization, “Climbing the Motherman” does a lot very well, on several levels—and uses the same tricks of juxtaposition to craft a world and relationships that feel rich and nuanced while throwing readers down a fast-moving, action-packed plot. It’s an interesting piece, and with a little careful thought, one that can definitely be great.

Best of luck with it!

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