Editor’s Choice Award September 2018, 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.

West Of California, Chapter 8 by Steve Brady

This is an intriguing chapter. With the help of the synopsis, it comes through pretty well for a cold read; there’s enough background information to get a sense of who the characters are and what the larger story is about.

The narrative voice is distinctive, with a wry sense of humor. As I read, I can actually hear a couple of my college friends talking in that same tone, telling a long, rambling tale in between hits of controlled substances. It very much has that vibe.

What I’d like to suggest in the next round of revisions is further work on the structure of the story. There is so much going on, so many things happening over so many years. Much of it we do need to know in order to understand what’s happening in the story-present, and there is a clear attempt to break up the passages of summary and synopsis with bits of dialogue and character interaction.

That’s a good start. As a reader I’d like more air in the story-room—by which I mean, slowing down for the dramatized scenes, giving them more space, with less synopsis in between. Do we need the blow-by-blow of Laura and Andy’s life and travels, or can we move faster from major event to major event? Can the dramatized scenes fold in more backstory as characters talk and interact, and dispense with at least some of the summaries?

One way to write backstory like this is to tell it in a series of flashbacks with characters acting and interacting. For example in the Tucson sequence, rather than summarizing what Laura did and with whom over those years, the story might be told in a handful of scenes. The seeds of those scenes are already there: Laura’s meeting with Brad in the midst of her empty life of smoking and painting, and how and when she introduces him to Andy; a vignette of Brad caring for Andy while Laura takes the leap into signing up for courses, in which we see how they all feel about it, and maybe we get to feel Laura’s sense of freedom with maybe a stab of guilt; the rave and the party (which might be combined for further narrative economy); the day Laura finds out Brad is leaving.

The last scene is partly written, but it needs more. More emotional complications. More resistance from Brad. More friction—because friction is how things move in this universe, including stories.

Transitions between scenes don’t need to be written out as such (“Two years went this way,” for example). It’s quite acceptable to jump from scene to scene with a bit that establishes where and when it stands in relation to the last one—Brad might say to Laura, “I’ve been spinning my wheels for two years. I’m bored. I want out. I’m going to New York.” And then Laura reacts, and maybe Andy does something in reaction to that. Maybe there’s an argument. When it’s over, Brad has been backed into a corner—and how does he feel about that? Trapped? Pissed? Resigned? A combination of all three? And then on to the next important event, which in this case would be a scene set in New York.

None of these scenes needs to be long or elaborate. The word count may not be a whole lot more than is already there in the summary. It’s the difference between passive voice and active, between a story summed up from a distance and one that’s happening right in front of the reader.

Exposition definitely has its place, and so does synopsis, but what brings a story to life is characters acting, moving, talking, living–sometimes in messy ways, with complicated feelings. Then the reader gets to experience that life with them.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2018, 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.

Pat Benatar and The Black Eyed Gods Of The Earth by Pierce Skinner

In a story centered around characters in a very disturbing cult, the author risks alienating readers who may find it difficult to relate to such characters.  This story instead draws readers in by starting with a situation we can easily relate to, three children exploring the countryside and discovering signs of a stranger.  The desire of Isaac, the protagonist, to steal the stranger’s Walkman is also something most of us can understand.  The disturbing cult they are part of is only hinted at in the opening scene, creating curiosity.  Future scenes provide additional hints and glimpses of the activities of the cult, drawing us further into the story, building momentum, suspense, and a disturbing atmosphere.  That works well.

Another strength of the story is that the cult feels both believable and unique.  I’ve read many horror stories about cults, and few of the cults portrayed in those stories have felt believable.

For me, the protagonist and the plot are not as strong as these other elements.   After stealing the Walkman and giving it to a girl to impress her, Isaac is a fairly passive, reactive protagonist.  He lets his friend, Alex, take the blame for stealing the Walkman and be killed.  He listens to the spirits of his dead, childhood friends as they provide hints about what is to come.  (Isaac believes they are gods, but they don’t seem like gods to me.)  When his dead friends kill his boss, he runs, but this is reactive–an action taken in reaction to what others have done–rather than active–an action taken because the character forms a goal and is struggling to achieve it.  It’s not clear that Isaac has any goal.  I don’t think he believes he can escape or even postpone his fate.  While he takes guns, I don’t think he believes he can stop them with bullets.  This makes his running pretty empty; nothing seems at stake.  If he wanted to do something else before meeting his fate, so he was racing to do that, he would be more active with a stronger goal and something at stake.

This relates to a larger point, which is why we should care about Isaac.  Why should we care whether there’s a way for him to escape his fate, and why we should care what he chooses?  I don’t know what Isaac has done with his life in between living in the cult as a child and meeting his fate as an adult.  He seems to have just been marking time.  If that’s so, maybe he realizes he’s wasted the time he had when his dead friends show up, belatedly realizes what he should have done, and now wants to do that thing before his time is over.

For example, perhaps there’s one person from the cult who has survived.  Perhaps it’s the girl he liked, Sandra.  Isaac could have been seeking out the others over the years and discovering when and how they died.  This would make Isaac more active, not just the recipient of information from other characters.  Perhaps he’s discovered Sandra is in a psychiatric hospital or prison, but he’s been afraid to seek her out, both for her sake and his own, thinking perhaps one or both of them might be overlooked by the curse of the cult.  Perhaps, in gathering all this information, he’s formed a theory about when they will be killed.  This could bring a ticking clock into the story and add suspense.  Right now, the suspense builds until around the scene that ends “I don’t breathe till I’m back on the highway.”  Then it declines, because we know Isaac can be killed at any time, and that time is just up to the author, not up to anything Isaac does.  (Of course the author controls every aspect of the story, but the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding according to a change of cause and effect, and that the protagonist has the ability to influence the course of events.)  If Isaac thinks he knows when Sandra will be killed, and when he will be killed, then Isaac will have to race against that clock if he wants to accomplish anything before it’s too late.  As the time he has calculated for Sandra’s death approaches, he may feel the need to call her.  And she could reveal that strange things are happening.  Sure now that she’s about to die, Isaac decides he doesn’t want to hide anymore; he wants to try to save Sandra.  He might think that if he can delay her death so it doesn’t happen at the proper time, she might be spared.  If he dies in the process, that would be okay.  Or he might think he could sacrifice himself in place of her.  Or maybe he thinks she knows something that could save both of them.  Either way, Isaac has a goal, something is at stake, time is short, and suspense is high.   Maybe he can affect events or maybe he can’t, but at least he believes he might.

This struggle can also help set up a difficult decision for Isaac.  The story establishes that Isaac has a choice to make:  die or have the same existence as his dead friends.  Right now, Isaac decides to be with his friends because they are, after all, his friends.  But there’s nothing much at stake in this decision and the choice doesn’t seem difficult for Isaac.  That means it doesn’t carry much emotion or impact.

Instead, for example, Isaac might have decided long ago that he wants to die.  He doesn’t want any twilight life like his friends have.  He struggles to save Sandra, and we can see how much she means to him, how precious these few minutes they have together are to him.  But he fails, and she becomes another dead friend.  Now he faces a difficult decision.  Accept life after death and be with Sandra, or choose death and lose her again.  I think whatever he decides, it will have more impact.

To further clarify the stakes and the decision, I think we need a clearer sense of what this life after death is.  As I mentioned, his dead friends don’t seem like gods to me.  They seem very limited in their power, serving some more powerful being.  And it’s not clear what they do or how they live when they aren’t killing someone from the cult.  I’m not asking for a thorough description of their lives; I’m asking for a few key details that will make the stakes higher and Isaac’s choice more difficult.

One final point I want to mention is that quoting even one line of lyrics from a song requires permission from the rights holder (unlike quoting one line from a story a novel), which can cost hundreds of dollars.  My suggestion would be to make up a song rather than quoting from an existing one.

I thought you did a nice job of gradually revealing information and making me relate to characters that are part of this disturbing cult.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Award September 2018, 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.

 

Nine Gold Dots by C.K. Attner

Post-apocalyptic futures are not new terrain—and neither are quests to find the one scientist who can save them—but what struck me about “Nine Gold Dots” this month is how it demonstrates what’s at the core of a post-apocalyptic story: nuanced character work and worldbuilding that argues for better—or different—societies. However, the ending to this absorbing alternate future feels abrupt—cut short and overly light compared to the rest of the piece. So this month, I’d like to discuss the structural components that go into an effective ending, and how they’re rooted in the rest of a story.

A lot of thought has obviously gone into “Nine Gold Dots” and its sense of place: it’s founded on dense, layered worldbuilding and practical thought about what would work day-to-day in this scenario (the induction plate! Solar panels! Bikes! All so textural, and deeply logical). I would like to especially note that I really appreciated seeing a future that’s Salish and Chinese—one overall reflective of the actual current demographics of British Columbia—and the effort that went into setting the space’s emotional tone. Even with what’s at stake, and Edmonton’s repressed panic, there’s a softness to this particular end of the world that I found deeply welcoming as a reader: a core value that everyone involved here cares about the well-being of others first and foremost. It’s the gentleness of Station Eleven, but rooted in a much less white, high-culture, reified world, and that fundamental decency made this story a deeply satisfying place to spend mental time.

The characterization work also carries the narrative well, which is important for a piece centred around only three characters. I especially love Phoenicia’s grumpy, down-to-earth, thoroughly knowledgable practicality. She reads like someone very loving who has nonetheless had to grow up much too fast, and I developed an immense soft spot for her almost instantly. Even Lindy’s abrupt consent to the download has an emotional logic: she misses her old world and her old life, and wants one last grasp at it.

Where “Nine Gold Dots” wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders for me, yet, was in terms of pacing. The author’s notes do say this is on the whole done, but I’d like to suggest a little more structural refinement to address that issue.

“Nine Gold Dots” starts as a slow and cautious read for a few reasons: the density of the worldbuilding presents somewhat of an obstacle for reader immersion in the first several hundred words—readers need to situate themselves in this world, and there’s a learning curve to do early—and that’s exacerbated by the amount of invented language/jargon in this piece. Readers are spending the early pages trying to understand how the invented terms fit, but at the same time, trying to build a setting foundation on which to situate those concepts.

As it stands in the current draft, the effect of having that crunch of worldbuilding details packed into the first pages—when we’re also meeting characters, establishing conflict, and doing all the other work a story needs to do to explain what it is and why it’s relevant—is that “Nine Gold Dots” feels overall top-heavy, with its ending somewhat summarily abrupt. It’s less, I think, that the ending on its own terms is abrupt; but when balanced against the sheer amount of page space the early scenes take up—because they have the worldbuilding!—the comparison creates the effect of an ending unfinished, or just not quite enough. This robs the ending of impact, and leaves the reading experience feeling somewhat incomplete, or less satisfying than it could be.

There are a few strategies I’d like to suggest to rebalance this effect, ones that can be used separately or together.

The first: Reconsidering the necessity of each piece of jargon, or worldbuilding detail. I don’t personally think pruning alone will rebalance “Nine Gold Dots” without losing some of the richness of the world—which is already great!—but a quick pruning pass might be a good starting point. Which of the worldbuilding details pay off in some way, later? Which don’t lead anywhere? Snipping out dead ends or jargon that isn’t pulling its weight leaves one with overall less information to accommodate in a different way.

The second: Diffusing the worldbuilding detail through more narrative space to take the weight and density off the early scenes, and support it more broadly through the story. As a guide for this kind of work, consider pacing—and the density of detail—in a way that’s cyclical, like breath. Every piece of new, unfamiliar information—for example, that Edmonton is researching a viroid but also wants to link with the Thinker on his Kingston-class ship’s orlop deck—takes a little attentional oxygen out of the reader. And for every little bit of cognitive breath we take out, we have to give some space to fill those readerly lungs. That can mean couching it in more context or clearer context; it can mean some space between new concepts; it can mean a little time in familiar concepts to help clear those metaphorical lungs. But either way, finding methods to put air in our work is a great tool to have in the box to keep readers immersed even in information-dense settings.

The third: Adding a little more page weight to the ending. Ultimately, if the denouement feels a bit abrupt or slight, a small underline on the ending—and what readers are to take from it as the resolution that should satisfy them—can help balance from the other end. I can think of one particular starting point for this: There’s a line not entirely clearly drawn between the idea that teaching Edmonton to interface with the Thinker might take months, and that Lindy has months—maximum—to live. When those two ideas are connected, “Nine Gold Dots” says something profound about what we do with the time left to us, and a little more underlining on that point—just a one-sentence callback—could help boost the impact of the ending.

Ultimately, stabilizing pacing and structure can take a little experimentation: testing, taking words out, putting them back in, and checking to see if the story overall wobbles now or not. But with a little more work on moving the spotlight from the world, in the beginning, to a smoother pace that’s spread out throughout the whole piece, “Nine Gold Dots” can really click, I think, into a moving and humane piece.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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 Three Faces Of Holly, Chapter 2 by Anne Wrightwell

There’s a lot of intriguing stuff going on in this submission. Lots of mystery, lots of details that alert the protagonist to the fact that she’s not in her original reality. She spends much of her time telling us what’s different, and letting us know how she feels about it.

It’s clear the author has thought carefully about the worldbuilding, and paid attention to the little things. Some of them (like the oyster card) do repeat, but that’s easy to fix in revision. Work in other details to vary the effect, but to get the same message across: that this isn’t the world she expected to wake up in.

One thing I kept coming back to as I read was the ways in which the viewpoint keeps itself at center stage. Voice is really important in first-person narrative; Holly has a lot to say, and she makes sure to remind the reader that she’s there to say it.

While it’s a good thing to be unambiguous about who’s talking, it can also get in the way of the story. Frequent viewpoint-tagging is like that person in class who keeps jumping up and yelling, “Hey! Hey! Look at me! Pay attention to me!”

Words like sawfeltrealizednoticed, serve as filters between the reader and the story. They create the impression that they don’t trust either the reader’s perceptions or their own ability to make it clear who’s telling the story. This becomes particularly noticeable when the narrative adds qualifiers like seemed and sounded to the words and actions of characters who are not the narrator.

In revision, try removing all of these filter-words and see if the story still makes sense. Often it turns out that most or even all of them don’t need to be there.

The same applies to conversational-filler phrases (of course, for example, or now in the sense of Now, this was embarrassing) and parenthetical bits (I said brightly (or as brightly as I could manage with a hangover), for example). There’s a fine line between the cool-character voice and the trying-too-hard voice. Again, cutting them all can clarify where they’re superfluous, and where they can most effectively be added back in.

The techniques of internal monologue are another case of a little goes a long way. Rhetorical questions—I had to keep moving but which way to go? or What was happening?—may seem to the writer to show the character thinking actively about what to do, but what they actually do is stop the narrative while the character spins her mental wheels. Try removing the question and just show the character taking action, even if it’s indecisive: walking in one direction, then reversing, to show that she doesn’t know where to go. See if that’s more effective, more vivid and immediate.

Saying the same thing over and over, or saying it in different ways in consecutive sentences or throughout a paragraph, can have a similar effect. Here’s an example:

It would have been so easy to slump back in my seat and doze but I had to be vigilant to make sure that I got off at the right stop. I really couldn’t face getting off at the wrong stop and having to retrace my steps, the way I felt.

Note the passive phrases—would have beenhad to be—and the repetition of stop, and the viewpoint tag at the end. These rhetorical bits put a wall of words between the reader and what’s happening. Changing to more active phrasing and removing the repetitions and the tag makes for tighter prose and a more immediate experience. Something like this:

I didn’t dare slump back in my seat and doze, in case I got off at the wrong stop and had to retrace my steps.

See what I did there? Same concepts, same key words, but shorter and pointier. Story moves forward, and we’re clear on how she feels about it.

Paring and pruning like this throughout will make the line of the narrative more distinct, bring out the most important details, and sharpen Holly’s voice and perspective. Less, as they say, is more. Just the right choice of words, just the right selection of actions and reactions, will make the story and the character pop, and bring out both Holly’s natural sassy wit and her mounting confusion.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

Songs Of Transience And Permanence by Hannah Hulbert

I gravitated toward this submission because it pinged two of my Favorites buttons: magic based on music, and the Anglo-Saxon era. I am not an expert in music, but I agree with the Author’s Note that the story should get a beta read from someone who is. I can even offer Recommended Reading in the form of a historical fantasy series by an author whose knowledge of music is deep and wide: T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas. There’s a novel coming in early 2019, but in the meantime the novellas are nice and short and might provide inspiration.

As for the story itself, there are some good things going on. Music has always been used to manipulate emotions; it’s a natural extension of this to create a magical system, and a set of magic users, who wield the power of music for political purposes. It’s a nice wrinkle to tell the story of a naive young musician who tries to foment revolution through a song–and discovers that he’s not only far from the first to do so, his attempt backfires. In a way he gets what he wanted, but it’s not at all what he expected.

That’s a nice twist. So is the setting, which isn’t a common one in fantasy these days. Anglo-Saxon culture was steeped in music and song. It’s believable that adepts might work powerful magic with it.

What I’d like to focus on here is one of the author’s questions, the one about names. Names have power. In fantasy, and especially in secondary-world fantasy, they’re an essential part of the worldbuilding.

Purely coincidentally, after I had chosen this submission for the music and the setting, one of my fellow writers on Twitter put up a thread about naming in fantasy: https://twitter.com/adribbleofink/status/1031969208576368640 . The thread is mostly about cultural appropriation, but it’s also about why names are important, and why it’s important to be fully conscious of what those names mean. Even with the best of intentions, if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we can run into trouble.

Let me be quick to add that I don’t see anything appropriative about the story I’m reading here. It respects the sources, and it wants to create a cultural ambience through the use of names and terms in Anglo-Saxon. The question is about whether those names are a distraction.

My direct answer is that some of them are. Those that use special characters are confusing to the modern eye, and if the reader doesn’t know how to pronounce them, they get in the way. For myself, I would normalize the cyning/king’s name to AElfraed, which is still more authentic than not, but less likely to throw the reader’s browser into paroxysms. Mine, for example, gave me ÆlfrÇ£d.

My less direct answer has to do with the names of the main characters. Regina is a Latin name, but we aren’t told why she’s called that. Is she descended from Roman Britons? Does she come from Italy or one of the Roman provinces across the Channel?

Even if she is, her name still needs some basis in the world and the story. It’s actually a title, and tends to be applied to the Virgin Mary as Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. It’s not uncommon in the modern world—it’s my mother’s name, in fact. But in the age of Alfred, it stands out.

The protagonist’s name presents a similar set of issues.The prose in general aims toward high fantasy, but Nicky’s name drops us down into a nickname with a modern flavor. It’s usually short for Nicholas, which is a form of the Greek name Nikolaos. As with Regina, it makes me ask if he comes from somewhere other than the land of the Angles and the Saxons. Or if he is a native Saxon, and he’s been given a saint’s name (as Regina has been given a title of the Virgin Mary), that points to a Christian presence. But we don’t see it in the story–and we should; it was a major influence on the whole culture, from top to bottom.

As a reader, I want to know why the author chose those particular names in a story that is so careful otherwise to describe the world and its people in Anglo-Saxon terms. Why not give these two characters Anglo-Saxon names? What is the reasoning behind the choice? How does the worldbuilding support it? What is its significance within the setting?

It’s perfectly possible to use those names in a story set in the age of Alfred, but as a reader, I want to understand why. The story is about these characters; they’re its focus. Their names should speak to the core of who and what they are–and tell us a great deal about the world in which they live.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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.

Waters of Life by Jim McDougall

Writers often tend to focus on figuring out what happens next.  Each sentence leaves them with that horrible question hanging before them.  But good writing often arises not from thinking about what happens next, but from focusing on making each moment, the now of the story, as intense and powerful as possible.

“Waters of Life” has several powerful and memorable moments.  At Cedar Lake Resort, Brian sees a very old photo of the nearby dock and realizes his wife, Julia, is in the picture.  I’ve read some other stories where things like this happen, so that in itself didn’t strike me as powerful.  The memorable moment, for me, occurs when the image of his wife becomes blurry:  “He couldn’t tell if Julia was actually there, or if he had mistaken her for a shadow, or even a smudge or wrinkle on the paper.”  This created a vivid image in my mind, created uncertainty that intellectually engaged me (as I tried to figure out what was happening) and gave me a chill.  Was that Julia in the photo?  How could she be there?  Why did she fade?

Another powerful moment occurs when Julia, who we know is hours away at work, appears in Brian’s cabin.  This build a strong atmosphere of dread.  And when Julia leads Brian to the end of the dock and Brian follows her off the edge, that’s a creepy, startling, and powerful moment.

The big picture of the story is not as successful as these individual moments.  Much of the power of the big picture of a story arises from two qualities:  unity and focus.  Unity means all the elements of the story (plot, character, setting, point of view, style, genre, symbols, themes, imagery, etc.) work together to creat a particular effect.  Focus means that the effect created is clear and limited.  While this story has some nice writing and some strong moments, it is not yet unified or focused.  A good test to see if your story is unified and focused is to try to summarize it (including the ending) in one sentence.  If you can’t, or if the sentence ends up being very long and having multiple parts to it that don’t strongly relate to each other, then you probably have a problem.  In this case, my summary would be something like “A husband follows an image of his wife into a lake and drowns, and his wife discovers a woman who looked just like her drowned in the lake the day before she was born, and the manager’s mother reveals, I think, that she has used her magic powers to kill Julia and possibly to kill the other woman years ago.”  This sentence, with three independent clauses connected by ands, describes what I’d call a stringy plot.  Each part feels pretty separate from the others rather than strongly interconnected.  So I don’t feel a lot of unity or focus.

Let’s look in more detail at various parts of the story to understand this “stringiness” better.  The setting is given some prominence through the amount of description it receives and the location of the description (at the opening of the story and at the opening of another scene–very prominent locations), suggesting the cabins are deceptive or threatening in some way.  Yet that isn’t true.  The reader is promised a story about a dangerous resort, but that is never delivered.

Quite a bit of emphais is put on Julia’s workaholic nature, suggesting the story will be about the marital troubles this causes, yet that turns out to be irrelevant to the story, beyond providing an excuse for Julia to arrive late.

The first chunk of the story, ending in Brian’s death, suggests the story will be about this ghostly Julia figure.  We later learn that this look-alike woman, Samantha, drowned the day before Julia was born, implying Julia may be the reincarnation of Samantha (which then makes me wonder how Samantha can also be a ghost).  But the ghost never appears again in the story, and Julia never makes any attempt to contact the ghost or fight the ghost to get Brian back, or destroy the ghost, and she never shows any sign of being a reincarnation of Samantha, beyond her birth date and her appearance.  So we seem to be promised a ghost story, and then a reincarnation story, but those promises are also not fulfilled.

Finally, we meet the resort manager’s mother, Cathy, who seems to have supernatural powers that can “alter the very fabric of time and space.”  While we don’t see her using this power, it seems that she has killed Julia in her sleep, and that she may have killed Samantha, though I’m not sure why she killed either of them.  The story then, ultimately, seems to be about a malicious woman who uses her power to kill people.  But it’s unclear whether she had anything to do with the appearance of Samantha’s ghost or the death of Brian–the things I care about most in the story.  And this story about a malicious, powerful woman hasn’t been set up.  We only have a small piece of this story.

So it feels like we have pieces of several different stories here rather than one unified story.  I think any of these stories could be involving and disturbing, but we need to get just one story.

One other point I’d like to mention is that Brian and Julia generally seem to be victims with no chance of success.  A story generally needs a protagonist who has some power, some ability to affect circumstances.  That creates suspense as we wonder whether the protagonist will be able to escape from some difficult situation, solve some problem, or achieve some goal.  The protagonist doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but he needs to have at least some, so he can struggle to succeed and we can have hope that he might.  Neither Brian nor Julia seem to have any power to escape their situations.

I hope this is helpful.  I was quite drawn in by the opening of the story, and I really enjoyed those powerful, memorable moments.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Award August 2018, 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 Mark by Forrest Brazeal

I was impressed, this month, with the slow rush of atmosphere “The Mark” creates: a quiet simplicity that deepens into a gripping emotional choice, while avoiding the didactic. It’s a perfect example of the small engagements and sufficient narrative payoff Former Resident Editor—and editor of F&SF—C.C. Finlay described last month as essential elements of a slow-build story, and it uses multiple levels of craft to make that payoff work. So this month, I’d like to talk about reinforcing a character’s arc with our craft choices.

“The Mark” uses imagery well to foreshadow its core personalities. Joel’s boots “[making] imprints in the hard-baked ground” telegraph, exactly, his intent. Selah, suffering under the sun because her hat’s designed not to protect her, but to comply with Biblical readings and other people’s eyes, is summed up almost exactly in the first paragraph. Where Selah lands at the end is summed up just as perfectly in the last paragraph, with the shed skins of her ground cherries falling “unheeded” to the bus floor as she sheds the husk of her old life.

While there’s some room to trim in the first lines—a few too many images make for a visual tangle—they set the emotional scene appropriately in smart, small ways: the sun “assaults” the vegetable stand; does that with “mindless” intensity in a story that’ll prove to be about assault, and about the choice against obeying mindlessly. The tie between the small choices made here, on the line level, and how the story develops set thematic benchmarks for the rest of the piece to develop.

And from there, “The Mark” quickly starts to develop and complicate its characters. Joel’s constant boundary pushes and control attempts are recognizable to readers, even if Selah doesn’t catch the red flags: He telegraphs classic abuser grooming behaviour, which creates tension in scenes which would otherwise feel quite quiet, but his desire for bigger things feels sincere. Mrs. Miller’s iron rule complexifies into something more nuanced—she’s obviously working through some trauma about the outside world—and then dives right over the cliff into horror as that trauma makes her take a knife to her own daughter.

The characterization here is what makes “The Mark” work for me, and it’s particularly strong in the secondary characters. No one in “The Mark” has Selah’s best interests at heart; yet regardless, everyone in “The Mark” gifts her something precious that she needs. In a sense, Joel is right: Getting out of her comfort zone means she can do amazing things, and she can get good work in Richmond, and it’s the money he paid her that she uses to flee. In a sense, her mother is right: Mrs. Miller describes to the letter what Joel wants to do to Selah, and that arms her against what she overhears Joel say. It’s learning to metabolize those gifts as tools she can use in her own choices, and on her own terms, that makes for a powerful and relatable arc of growth.

This is where the metaphor of writing a character arc chorally comes in: Think about the difference between a single voice singing a line of melody and layered voices supporting that same line. There’s a resonance and impact to a multiple-voiced song, and that’s something we can achieve as prose writers when we line up all our elements of craft to mirror with our protagonist’s arc.

On the prose level, “The Mark” starts with largely short, simple declarative sentences, and moves to a more lyrical voice as it goes. Sentences get physically longer; punctuation becomes more complex. Dialogue is tagged more often. The physical form of the story gets more nuanced, more complicated, and bigger just as Selah’s world—and worldview—do.

The word choice shifts alongside it: in the first scene, where the outside world—passing cars—is an assaultive force, “each throwing its fine spray of dust and gravel against the faded wooden sign on the front of the vegetable stand.” By the end, the shadowy hills are sweeping past, and she “danced away the pain in the long grass behind the house”—this is bigger, more haunting, more joy-infused language.

On the worldbuilding level, Selah moves from very small and isolated spaces to progressively bigger, more populated ones—and the tone of those spaces changes. The first four scenes at the vegetable stand establish a small space, and then motion outward to the mall in Charlottesville—and ultimately, out to Richmond. That progression is another voice bolstering the movement from Selah’s small internal world of rules, black-and-white morality, and compliance to bigger and more nuanced choices.

I won’t go through each element of craft, but there’s a direction to the way they line up to resonate with Selah’s journey—and that’s what makes “The Mark” largely effective for me. Instead of Selah’s arc standing alone, in an inert setting of worldbuilding, prose, and style, the other elements of craft support it—they all move from stark and simple to complex—and create the feeling of momentum despite the narrative action being quite small and simple.

There are some characterization points I would suggest considering more closely: to a young woman who was raised to fear sexual violence, and who was just betrayed by a man she thought cared about her, wearing skimpier clothes outside her own room for the first time would likely not be “strangely exhilarating”. I’d recommend reading accounts of women who grew up wearing burqa being forced to go without them overnight, after national bans, for a primary-source perspective.

Selah’s disowning of her religion also seems abrupt. There’s a lot of territory between a first, tentative rebellion and “Well, maybe I’m not Anabaptist either,” especially for a girl who has few social ties outside her home, does love her family, and has even a basic understanding of her own mother. She has a lot at stake right now—an entire life, her whole social support network, safe housing—and I’d suggest considering how large a risk that statement holds for her.

I’d also suggest rethinking Joel’s appearance. There’s a trope being played to there—”short, pudgy, prematurely balding, with dirt-blond strands of hair growing long over the spot.” I’d ask why it seems important to connote badness through that specific physical description, and why it’s important that Joel not be good-looking, acceptably masculine, conventionally physically attractive. Like all the other decisions in “The Mark,” this one has a subtext—one rooted in certain social insecurities and shorthands about Good Men and Bad Men. It’s a subtext worth thinking about, especially in a story whose entire arc involves realizing that people—and things—are not as they look.

Overall, however, this is strongly rendered and lands its ending perfectly, a complex squiggle of freedom and fear and unease. Best of luck with it, and I look forward to seeing it in print!

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

Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, 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.

Deadfall–Chapter 3 by Elizabeth Underwood

There are quite a few cool elements in this chapter. Lots of supernatural species. Teleportation. Magical dangerblood a la Twilight and True Blood. And plenty of action and tension.

I agree with the author’s note that the ms. needs a good, thorough copyedit, not just for grammar and syntax (“off of” should delete the “of,” for example; comma splices and run-on sentences; and what I call revision artifacts, such as “would have normally of,” which looks like a correction from “would of” to “would have” that missed deleting “of”) but for verb tense (past or present? Choose one) and narrative mode (first person or third?). But the copyedit comes very late in the publishing process, and I think there are other things to address before applying that last coat of polish.

One thing to watch out for is Red’s tendency to synopsize through internal monologue. She sums up backstory and explains the situation past and present and to come, in between bits of dialogue and action—for example while Vampra is threatening her; she explains what’s happening, sketches out her plan, and figures out what Vampra’s plan is. Much of this could be dramatized, or shown in scenes—let Vampra reveal her own motivations, and let us see what Red does to get out of this predicament and get Charles to safety.

Internal monologue is a very tempting trap, especially in first-person narration. Most people of whatever species have one going anyway, and a writer looking for that extra bit of realism may want to provide a full record of what her character is thinking, extrapolating, musing, planning. However, just as real-world dialogue is full of filler and throat-clearing and small talk and irrelevancies, and fictional dialogue lets all this sink into the background and gives the reader the good-parts version, fictional character-musings can dispense with all but the most directly relevant bits.

Here, that means letting the reader see what happens as it happens, rather than being told about it as Red plans it. Likewise, rather than having Red tell us what Vampra wants to do, let us see her do it, and then maybe Red can have a brief moment of “I knew it” even while she does whatever needs doing at the moment.

Watch out too for the tendency to summarize when writing it out would be more effective and dramatic—the vampires’ argument in the hallway, for example. Let us hear their words as Red hears them; give us the direct experience of what they’re saying. It won’t take up much more space than the synopsis does, but it will read more vividly and move the story forward more quickly.

It might be a good idea to do some rethinking about the conversation with the not-vampire, as well. They come to an agreement very quickly, and Red doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of trouble with it. It’s a little too uncomplicated. She’s indenturing herself for a year to a creature whose species she’s not even sure of. She is in a tight spot and Charles needs help stat (though that could use some clarification at the beginning of the scene as well—it’s not immediately obvious that he’s under a spell; just that he’s a really deep sleeper), but she’s already let us know she has a plan for that. We need more sense of why her plan is no longer viable, and why she’s willing to pay such a high price with so little negotiation.

It needs to be messier. More sense that the stakes are high and the price is, too, but when she balances them out, she can’t make any choice but the one she makes. It’s visibly tough, but also inevitable. Let us feel that through her. Then we’ll read on, hoping she finds a way out, but expecting that it won’t be either fast or easy.

That’s how plot moves—through friction. Things being tough and complicated. Characters navigating the minefield, trying to stay in one piece, but sometimes they get lost, and sometimes bits get blown off. In Red’s case, possibly even literally.

Good luck with this, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, 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.

For The Love Of An Enemy by Penelope Lee

Wouldn’t you know, although I’ve seen quite a few titles in the genre and snagged a fair number of those for my TBR pile, this is the first time I’ve actually read steampunk space opera. I am now intensely curious as to how railroad tracks work in space. I can’t quite envision it, and I keep wondering, but that’s just me being me, and it’s not what this excerpt is trying to do in any case. It has other priorities.

Beginnings are hard. We have to draw the reader in, provide just enough information to keep her reading, and still manage to keep the whole picture in mind—even for explorer-writers, who discover the territory as they go, there’s still the worldbuilding and the setting and the basic structure of the story to keep track of.

I like this one. There’s plenty of setting and background to establish where we are, what kind of universe this is, and who the characters are. Those characters carry enough interest to keep me reading, while the pacing moves along quickly and the story builds itself, element by element. The writing is deft and confident: this writer is in command of her prose.

A beginning like this, particularly when it’s followed by a scene set in the past, can go in several directions. It might be a framing device for the main story, which proceeds from the second scene and ends on the prison train. Or it might be the main story, and the second scene is a flashback, the beginning of an explanation as to how the protagonist ended up on the train. The whole story could be told through braided scenes, interweaving past and present, or it might settle in one timeline or the other and develop itself from there.

It does seem that the first scene is a frame; the second scene promises to be a story that the narrator tells within that frame. She calls it a love story, and the title backs it up. This could be straightforward, or it could be ironic. We don’t know yet: we don’t have enough proof of her reliability as a narrator.

There are a few intriguing twists. The idea that prisoners’ memories may have been removed, or that a prisoner might have had hers restored—voluntarily? Involuntarily, as a punishment?—promises to add to the complications of the story as it unfolds.

What I said above about narrative reliability comes into play here. If memories can be tampered with, can our protagonist be sure she’s remembering what really happened? Are her memories incomplete? Might they even be false?

All of that is still an open question, here in the first two scenes. The prose is strong, the imagery powerful and sometimes harrowing. It makes me, as a reader, want to keep going, to find out what happens. To get to know these characters better. To find out how this universe works. And, of course, how humans have managed to turn interstellar space into a steam-era railway.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 2018, 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.

When Bereft Of One’s Counsellor (Part 1) by Richard Keelan

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” caught my eye this month with its casual melding of an Arab/Spanish setting and classic second-world fantasy—and the interesting intricacy of Noor, Salma, and Khalid’s political process as its focus, instead of battle and blood. It’s a more interesting perspective on how wars are won, it conveys that perspective—while firmly staying in the adventure fantasy genre—by using a variety of embedded worldbuilding assumptions. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we convey to readers by saying it explicitly, and what we convey by what our narratives endorse—and how to harness that to create more effective story work.

“When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” iterates the idea of adventure fantasy in a different—and yet tonally consistent—direction. Its Moorish Spain-flavoured world feels new and yet it’s got all the components of a Tolkienesque universe: castles, sieges, elves, dwarves, quests. Add some good splashes of sensory imagery—”softer than a pebble tumbling down a snowdrift” is quite evocative—and well-paced battle scenes, and immediate stakes in the opening paragraph, with “Anasalença was burning,” and it’s a story in a familiar genre vein, but with more.

What caught my attention is that “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” is classic second-world adventure fantasy with an ethic, and the ethic isn’t being communicated didactically, but woven into the very fabric of the piece. When we talk about what a story endorses, frequently what we’re talking about is which assumptions about the world are treated as a given by the story—not necessarily the characters, but the narrative voice. And “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” communicates most of its worldbuilding in an integrated fashion that takes full advantage of that effect.

Just a few (a pile!) of examples: Noor and their Orccen colleagues casually use sign language together—having idiom and dialect, which Noor can’t always understand because it’s a second language for them. Salma shows a Dwarven woman as a competent and trusted soldier, even though that’s not her main role; her main role is to propel Noor into the election. The fact that the Remnancy is democratic and not a hereditary monarchy—led by mayors and electors—and that means Noor, Salma, and Khalid must use different strategies to win their particular battle.

On the sentence level, lines like “his Dragonnen soldiers—men like us, loathe as we were to admit it—” and the description of the Elfren militia as Noor’s “friends and neighbours” are a direct refutation of the kind of black-and-white morality that’s one of the core tropes—and bluntly, one of the core failure points—of secondary-world fantasy.

All this sits against the backdrop of what we’re canonically used to in elves-and-dwarves fantasy—racial segregation and stereotyping with races as monocultures, strongly hierarchical government, Western European-derived and English-speaking worlds, and problems being solved by alternate applications of magic and genocide. But “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” refutes that not by replicating it or actively calling it out; it just exists differently, on different assumptions. The entire setup of “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” quietly believes in a world where morality isn’t a racial characteristic, and while it never says that outright, it doesn’t have to: every worldbuilding choice it makes conveys that message.

It also quietly believes in society—in interreliance, in collective action. That assumption is shown in Noor’s days of campaigning, their thinking ahead to Hasan’s credibility in case Noor loses the election, the idea that Elven fighting can do a job sometimes when Orccen can’t and vice versa; that Hasan can be good for one job, but not effective at another, and that doesn’t make him bad. People save Noor’s life with their own bodies. The highest office is Steward, which connotes responsibility, not power—and Noor and Hasan’s argument over it an argument about the proper fulfillment of responsibility. When Noor does go alone, they take Khalid’s arms with them.

All those assumptions tell me, as a reader, about the world “When Bereft of One’s Counsellor” believes in. This is adventure fantasy with nuance—and it hasn’t sacrificed the adventure to get it, because the page space, the exposition, the time we spend with Noor, hasn’t had to be used to do that worldbuilding. The worldbuilding’s been done in the assumptions, freeing up page space for Noor, Salma, and Khalid to contest an election and rout a siege. Freeing up page space for, in short, the plot.

From a craft standpoint, having an ethic—and knowing what assumptions about the world our stories endorse—is good writing. It’s indicative that we, as authors, have thought about how our worlds work—and how the world we live in works, and it’s a crucial skill for writing works that are rooted in genre, but looking to grow. What’s more, using the same embedded assumptions that let a story show implicit bias to communicate important worldbuilding beliefs—to, in short, make choices instead of having accidents—is an incredibly powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It’s the kind of tool that lets one describe an entirely different vision of second-world Tolkienesque fantasy in the exact same space as a tense and rollicking story of breaking a siege, not compromising one for the other, and still do it in only about 8,000 words.

There are aspects of the piece that I think can use a little more attention. The magic system comes in late in the story: Noor doesn’t show a hint of having any magic until his foray to Santiago, at which point the entire story is dependent on it—and it makes the trip to Santiago’s camp a little too easy, and a little too anticlimactic. A little more telegraphing, early on, that it’s in Noor’s abilities would, I think, set that solution up better; alternately, a solution that’s more in keeping with the lower-magic, more physical resources Noor has already shown would also feel like a stronger fit.

Likewise, there are a few problems in plot logic. If Noor’s plan is to cripple Santiago by killing his counsellor, why go after Santiago first? The plan is going perfectly; there’s no reason to foul it up. And on a more pressing note: If Noor could rout Santiago single-handed, with the use of magic, then the entirety of Noor’s appeal to Hasan for more troops—and the entire election, and the entire plot of the story—has been for nothing. There is no reason to have not just done it this way the first time. That’s a major fault in plot logic, and it’s one that I think would bear some close examination.

On the prose level, there are also small places where scaffolding—bits of sentence that are a bit drafty—can be removed: “His scale-covered maw opened and spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears” conveys the same information as “His scale-covered maw spat burning venom over the front rank of Orccen spears,” but it’s tighter and more streamlined.

But this piece feels well-integrated and interestingly ambitious, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

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