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)

Editor’s Choice Review September 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.

The Sharp-Edged Detritus Of Broken Words by Marion Engelke

Lately I’ve been happening across submissions that trend toward the all-the-details end of the draft spectrum. This is a thoroughly valid process, and can result in beautiful, rich and layered fiction. But in revision, the emphasis will be on pruning and paring away the extra words to uncover the structure of the story.

This time I’ve opted to look at a submission that falls on the other end of the range. It’s lean and honed and totally pared down. There’s nothing extra; everything that’s there is meant to be there.

“The Sharp-Edged Detritus of Broken Words” holds together with exquisite precision. I didn’t miss any information about the dragons within the context of the story. Everything worked for me; some aspects were implied rather than explicit, but the implication was clear. This is a good example of how to choose just the right details, and the reader pick up the rest.

My questions about the worldbuilding are fascination-questions, rather than “I’m missing this from the story” questions. I love the idea of dragons singing languages into and out of existence, and turning written words into edged weapons. It’s gorgeous. I wanted to know where the dragons come from, whether they show up everywhere in the same year, where they go in between, and why the period is so precise. And who figured out what they do, if everyone’s mind and world are so altered? What happens to the trove of salvaged books? Is it always one scholar who saves them? Does she pass on her knowledge? Is someone or something controlling the dragons? Is there a reason for what they do? And what about people in their houses? How do they protect themselves against the word-shrapnel? What is the process that alters everything about them? What does it look like, feel like?

So many questions, but that’s a sign of success. The worldbuilding is so tight and focused and pointed, but there’s so much underneath. I want to know more. I want to see more of this world, and understand it better. And at the same time, I’m content with what I see in this one story. It covers what it needs to cover.

One thing I would suggest, since this is so tightly written and so precisely constructed, is to really, really watch the way the words fit together. It’s always important to hunt down and kill infelicities of grammar and syntax in one’s writing, but they’re particularly important in a story as concise as this.

I noted that prepositions sometimes wander out of bounds, or idioms don’t quite parse. For example:

tips and tricks of what to plant when and where, of what to do

The more common idiom would probably be for rather than of.

a burgeoning fruit and vegetable patch behind the house was going a long way for keeping food

And here, toward would be the more standard usage than for.

Rosa passed under the row of iron spears of the portcullis into the city’s unnerving silence

This is what I call a prepositional pileup. It’s maybe trying a shade too hard to be concise. Opening it up and separating the phrases would make the meaning a little clearer and the flow a little smoother.

What in all that’s holy are you doing here?”

The usual phrase is “in the name of all that’s holy.” I kind of like the shortened form here, but it might catch a copy editor up short.

Everybody moved in a flowing, gliding gait

Here again, there’s a sort of logic to it, but the idiom is more usually “with a flowing gait.”

And finally, here’s a bit of story-blocking that made me stop to figure out the visual:

The voice sounded from her right. Rosa flinched and jumped to her feet. A woman stood in front of her

The voice is coming from the right but the woman is in front of her?

These are really quibbles. Structurally and conceptually the story is lovely. I want to see more—to know what happened when Rosa went home—but I’m satisfied with the amount of story that I’ve been given. It’s rounded; it’s complete. I have enough information to imagine what happens next. The important parts are all there. The rest is a lovely silence.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review September 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.

Vamp, Part 2: The Years We Waste by David Busboom

Writers often talk about voice without really knowing what it is.  A weak or inappropriate voice in an otherwise strong story can destroy it.  A strong voice can make us love a mediocre story.  Voice is the personality of the character as revealed through his use of the language.  That means voice is the cumulative effect of many small decisions on the part of the author, which explains why it can be challenging to control.  While voice is important in all fiction, it is most important in stories told in first person.  In first person, the character is usually speaking directly to us, telling us his story.  In real life, some people make you want to sit down and listen to their stories, while others don’t.  In large part, this is due to their voice, their personality, the way they tell a story.  A narrator’s first-person voice needs to show readers that being a good storyteller is part of his personality.  The narrator needs to have interesting, fresh observations that allow readers to see events in a new and compelling way.  Those are the qualities that can pull readers in and keep them turning the pages, even when nothing earth-shattering is happening.

The first-person voice in Vamp draws me into part 2 without even having read part 1.  The voice feels believable and consistent (convincing me this is a real person talking to me), and it flows well–the narrator, Dave, is a good storyteller.  More than that, the language reveals to me that Dave is educated and reflective, and that he has a mix of influences ranging from popular culture to archaic lore.  These qualities make his observations, thoughts, descriptions, and reflections precise (which allows me to vividly experience them), interesting, and sometimes compelling.  That is a major strength of this novel excerpt.

An element in the excerpt that could be strengthened is the causal chain.  The causal chain is made up of the cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  A simple way to create causality is to make sure actions or events are connected with “therefore” or “which leads to.”  This happens, therefore this happens, which leads to this happening.  If the cavalry shows up to save your heroes but no one called the cavalry, and we’ve never seen the cavalry before, we’ll feel like the author is manipulating the story.  Of course the author is manipulating the story, but readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.  The causal chain is critical for this.  The causal chain not only helps the reader to believe in the story but is also critical to create suspense and surprise.  Suspense involves anticipating and worrying about what might happen, and we can’t do that if events are happening randomly, only if there are causal connections.  Surprise involves things happening other than the ones we anticipated.  That can’t happen unless we clearly anticipated one thing, and something different happened instead.

It’s easiest to create a strong causal chain when the story takes place over a short time period.  If Jane slaps Sarah and, five seconds later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s pretty easy to see the causal connection between these two slaps.  But if Jane slaps Sarah and, five years later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s harder to believe these are connected.  The fact that Sarah is slapping Jane at that particular moment feels random.  Why wouldn’t Sarah have slapped Jane sooner?

Part 2 of Vamp occurs over an extended time period, which makes it difficult to create a strong causal chain.  In part 1, Dave has an awesome sexual experience with Lilith when he’s 16.  It’s so great, it haunts him for years to come.  So why is it that when he’s 20, he decides she’s evil and goes back to the house where they had sex to kill Lilith?  The cause (motivation) for this actions seems weak.  An owl crashing into his windshield prompts thoughts of Lilith and a dream, and that sends Dave on a big research project to learn all about Lilith and then to try to find and kill her.  The first break in the causal chain is the owl.  Why does this owl crash into his windshield?  Why on this day?  It seems manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a causal chain of events.  Then why, after all these years, does an owl prompt the dream?  And why does the dream prompt his decision?  Lilith asserts, in the dream, that Dave wants her more than his girlfriend.  But is that really a reason to embark on a huge research project about Lilith and to kill her?  I don’t think the intensity of their relationship/conflict has built to a point where he would be driven to kill her.  He seems to decide to kill her mainly because his research reveals Lilith is evil.  That seems a very abstract reason to kill someone, especially for Dave, who doesn’t seem to be a demon hunter.  This undercuts our belief in Dave and the plot.  It also seems like this research ought to reveal to him that Lilith isn’t someone who can be killed with a revolver, though this is the weapon Dave brings.

Several years later, Dave’s obsession with Lilith increases.  We’re told it happens because he’s engaged and his father dies, but neither of these causes seems sufficient to cause this effect.  He realizes that none of his sexual partners had matched Lilith.  I think he would know that while the sex is happening and not suddenly realize it years later.  When he’s suddenly obsessed with sex with Lilith and goes so far as to try to conjure her for sex, it’s not convincing.  The story needs a stronger causal chain.

One thing that would help is to condense the timeline so events happen closer together in time.  We also need the effects to be more in line with the causes, so we can believe Dave would do these things and we can believe his character arc over the novel.  If sex with Lilith is the best ever, then I think he’d go back to the house constantly hoping for more.  Perhaps he goes every week for a year, and then every month, and it’s always deserted.  Throughout this time he researches her, and perhaps he finds a number associated with Lilith in legend, and he thinks if he goes that number of times to the house, she will come.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with Elizabeth.  Now he has an internal conflict between his obsession with Lilith and his love for Elizabeth.  He still wants to go back to the house on his usual day of the month.  But perhaps Elizabeth wants to do something with him on that day and he lies and tells her he’s busy.  He can tell that she knows he’s lying, and he’s upset about losing her trust.  When he goes to the house, he’s now angry over Lilith’s hold on him and upset over how he’s treating Elizabeth.  He knows he must make a decision.  So he burns the house down.

But burning the house must have an effect.  Every event should have a cause, and every event should have an effect. So maybe he sets the house on fire, but as he does, he “gather[s] up paper scraps” to add to the flames, and he finds something that increases his obsession rather than putting it to rest.  He could find photos of her naked, or diagrams of a ceremony that might summon her, or an address where she might be.  Thus burning down the house would lead Dave to his next attempt to connect with Lilith.

With a stronger causal chain, Dave’s actions and other story events will be more believable, and we’ll feel more suspense and surprise as one thing leads to the next in ways that keep us on the edge of our seats.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the excerpt with its strong voice and description.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Froggy and Willie Chapter 3 by Sue Wachtman

Humor is hard to do. It needs balance, it needs timing. It has to know when to pull out the stops and when to give the reader a breathing space.

I give this writer huge props for aiming at classic kid humor and succeeding, at least for me. A good copyedit and a judicious amount of pruning and tightening will make the prose even better, but the big picture works.

How does it work? By walking the narrow line between over the top and just too much. That’s an art and a gift.

Willie is a hoot. She’s just awful, but she’s so unabashed about it, and so completely cold-hearted, that she’s almost lovable. She has a Plan, dammit, and she’s going to execute that Plan, and that is most emphatically That.

But there’s a hint of change coming. Froggy is her opposite in terms of verbal acuity, self-confidence, and overall moral fiber (or lack thereof). He’s already smoothing her rough edges and making her see herself more clearly, but he does it in a way that doesn’t make me feel as if I’m being preached to. There’s an organic feel to their interactions, and a sense of timing—both comic and  emotional—that makes it work. The way they play off each other is deft and quick; it lingers just long enough to get the point across, and moves just fast enough to keep from bogging down.

If I were to quibble, I’d wonder if Froggy could repeat himself a bit less, and if the conversations between them could be tightened up. He repeats himself, that’s his thing, but just a little less of it would help keep things moving along.

What strikes and charms me overall is the sense of kid logic that runs through the story. Willie’s amorality and utter selfishness is pure kid, but so is her slow awakening to the existence of others in the world—and her very gradual realization that they just might have feelings, too.

I love the way she turns the fairytale trope of the beautiful princess on its head. She’s clearly got the face, but not the voice, and that’s something she’s alerted to in this chapter. She’s also quite willing to make herself ugly if it serves her purpose (and I wonder, though this may be made clear in the previous chapters, whether Granny abets her plan in order to foster the kind of self-awakening that’s happening here). Beauty is a tool for her, but she’s not invested in it. It’s not absolutely essential to her identity. At bottom, with all her considerable flaws, she’s Willie first and foremost. With or without blackberry teeth.

And that’s pure kid, too: eeuuww gross and therefore funny. She breathes licorice at you, she gives you hives. She’s toxic but she embraces it. It’s almost too much, but it stops just short.

And may I salute the pro-frog messaging in a genre that so often defaults to prejudice against frogs (and toads and snakes and spiders). Froggy is very pretty frog, and Willie makes sure to mention it more than once. Again it doesn’t strike me as preaching; it fits the characters and the situation. But it counteracts the propaganda that we’re fed in kidlit and in our culture in general.

One note on genre labeling: It doesn’t feel YA to me, but middle-grade or even chapter book. The clarity of it, the broad strokes of characterization and action, and the overall voice and tone, give me a younger vibe.

I like this a lot, and wish it well as it makes its way out into the world.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Time Is The Fire Chapter 1 by Dylan McFadyen

Here’s a chapter of nice, chewy, detailed science fiction with a space opera vibe and some solid prose. A lot of thought has gone into the background and the worldbuilding, but the characters haven’t been shortchanged. They’re setting up for what should be an interesting mix of interactions and interrelationships.

I don’t get a sense of a murder mystery here so much as a classic, almost Clarkean interstellar conundrum: Who is the mysterious corpse and what is he to the humans in their starship? Less a question of whodunit and more whatisit.

One thing that might help is a clearer pointer in the first chapter to the murder or the murderee—a shift of focus that puts the murder more in the foreground. I also wondered why the chapter has date and location but the prologue doesn’t. Adding the tags would help the reader get the sense of how prologue and chapter relate to one another, even if the relationship isn’t clear for a while.

I find myself wondering if the prologue happens before or after the first chapter. Is the character dead already when the narrative proper begins, or is this the story of how he died? Just a hint would give me a direction to follow as I read.

In terms of of style and execution of the chapter, I had a couple of observations.

1. Worldbuilding to the fore. The profusion of detail tells me how carefully the world has been built, but past a certain point I found it distracting. Is it essential for me as the reader to know exactly how and with which finger Aean backscrolls, and exactly what the mechanism is for doing so?

I did the same thing with my phone just now, minus the hook-in to my cerebral cortex, but I wasn’t thinking about it while I did it. I just did it. Sometimes I do wonder what the exact mechanism is, but when I do that, it’s a thing in itself. It’s not something I’m thinking about while I’m doing research or carrying on a conversation.

There’s a place and a time for reflections on process. When they’re directly relevant to what’s happening in the story—say he uses the usual finger and gets a completely different result, and this causes Issues related to the plot—then as readers we need to know what the process is. But if the story is going somewhere else, then the process isn’t in our need-to-know. It bumps the plot off its rails.

In revision, maybe ask what the reader needs to know. What absolutely can’t be left out? Then layer in a few additional details for enrichment, in places where there’s a pause or a breathing space, or where they’ll sharpen the focus of a character or a scene. With the finger bit, for example, if Aean has a tendency toward hyper-focus, and he zeroes in on what he’s doing, then has to pull back in order to carry on his conversation—that’s character development. Even better if his momentary distraction leads to a revelation later, or a plot-moving event that originates in the movement of a finger.

2. Offstaging. This is my term for key action in a narrative that happens offstage, while the narrative consists of characters talking about the action either before or after it happens. When it’s used sparingly it can be really effective, because you get perspective on what happened or is about to happen. But for the most part, offstaging moves the reader away from the direct experience of the story. Especially when it happens early on, when we’re getting a lot of exposition, the story loses impulsion. It slows and stalls, and we’re separated from it by a filter of people we haven’t yet come to know, and action we can’t participate in.

Here I’d have liked to see some of the situations we’re told about. Maybe direct narration, maybe a concise flashback. Maybe the characters are getting a news feed or an alert, something that gives us a more visceral emotional punch.

While it’s amusing to see Aean in his bathrobe, does it need to take up as much word count as it does? Would the story be stronger if we’re closer to the action? If instead of Singh’s report on the Kyran fleet, what if we get to see it firsthand—or if it’s important to maintain distance from the action, Aean gets to see the raw footage of the Kyran fleet in motion? How much of the details of his orders do we need at this precise point? Can some of them be revealed as the story advances?

In a first chapter especially, the reader needs to be wooed and allured and tempted. She wants to get to know the characters, and she also wants to feel as if she’s a part of the action. That doesn’t mean every story has to start with screaming and explosions. Not at all. But the sooner the reader gets up close to what’s happening, the more likely she is to be caught up in it. And then she’ll stay to find out what happens next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Ghost Walk–Revision by Paul Taylor

Three things draw me into this story immediately. First, the title and the opening paragraph’s development of the concept of the “Ghost Walk” get me interested in how this tourist-type activity could become frightening. While I’ve read plenty of stories about amusement parks or weird museums becoming scary, I don’t think I’ve read one about a historical ghost walk becoming scary, so this seemed new and intriguing to me. Second, the writing feels assured and focused, diving right into the Ghost Walk, referring to the Ghost Walk as “it,” because the author knows we have read the title and will know what “it” is. This shows me the author will not over-explain and will allow me to figure things out on my own, which will make the story engaging. Opening with the statement, “It seemed like harmless fun” suggests to me that this writer is setting up an ending in which the walk will cause significant harm. As a reader of horror, I’m excited by this, and again this signals to me that I’m in the hands of a good writer. Third, over the first two paragraphs, the voice of the first-person narrator suggests a character who has some animosity toward his girlfriend/wife, who enjoys asserting his dominance over her. This suggests depth to the characters and the relationship, making me believe this story will not just be about scary ghosts but also about scary people, and that the flaws of the narrator will have an impact on the outcome of the story.

Of these three initial impressions, the first two turn out to be accurate and pay off through the rest of the story. The story does show me that this Ghost Walk is frightening, describing it in a vivid and fresh way that makes me feel afraid and provides the thrills I’m looking for in a horror story. The writing generally remains strong throughout. But the third impression I formed at the beginning turns out not to be accurate, and I think this is one way the story can be strengthened.

The voice sends me many signals that the narrator has a somewhat hostile attitude toward his unnamed girlfriend/wife, whom I’ll call Jane for ease of reference. In the second sentence, he thinks, “At worst, it might result in a nightmare or two for her.” His treatment of this as no big deal suggests either he doesn’t care or he wouldn’t mind if she had some nightmares, which seems quite cruel. In the second paragraph, he admits that taking her on the Ghost Walk is about asserting dominance over her. He explains she is easily frightened and doesn’t enjoy that, but then admits he jumps out to frighten her and finds her screams hilarious.

Unfortunately, all this character building leads nowhere. The narrator’s animosity doesn’t show up during the Ghost Walk and has no impact on the action. Instead, the narrator seems to become a bit condescending toward Jane, thinking she needs his shoulder to lean on and she needs him to take charge and “get her moving.” The condescending attitude again seems to have no impact on the action.

Both the animosity and the condescension seem inserted into the story simply to justify the behavior of the characters. Because he likes frightening her, he takes her on the Ghost Walk. Because she’s weak, he has to take charge, so the main part of the story can focus on his thoughts and actions, and she can be treated generally as an appendage who thinks and does the same things he does.

I think the story is missing a great opportunity. Strong, consistent characters could not only involve us more in the story but also create compelling complications by showing the interaction of character and supernatural. Right now, the characters seem largely the puppets of the author. They go on the Ghost Walk because the author says so, and they go the second time because the author says so. I don’t really believe they would choose to do these things. One way to take advantage of this opportunity would be to bring out the narrator’s hostility toward Jane more strongly, so I know that he’s taking her on the Ghost Walk because he’s angry at her about something and wants payback. He wants to scare her. Then as they go through this stressful experience, it could bring out the characteristics in Jane that the narrator doesn’t like, and bring out the narrator’s hostility more. For example, he could take some action to scare her near the climax, bringing on some disaster. That would allow the narrator’s character to have an impact on the outcome.

I do question, though, why Jane would be with him or why she would go along with this Ghost Walk, knowing that he likes to frighten her and knowing that she doesn’t like to be frightened. Jane’s character needs to be developed in a way that makes this believable. More than that, I’d love to see her developed with some depth, so there can be more interesting interaction and conflict between Jane and the narrator, and so we can have a contrast in how Jane reacts to the horror and how the narrator reacts to the horror. Right now, they become almost a collective entity when they go back for their second walk, which weakens the story significantly.

Another possibility would be to change their characters. Perhaps they both like frightening each other and are constantly trying to get the best of each other. Maybe they’re siblings rather than husband and wife. In any case, it would be really nice to see more interaction between character and supernatural, so the characters are reacting in interesting, distinctive ways to the horror, and that affects the horror and changes the outcome.

The other area where I think the story can be significantly strengthened is the ending. I really enjoy the shining blackness, but the characters easily escape it, and the entire experience seems to have little effect on them. We’re told they “carry scars” and are “changed,” but we don’t see that. Ultimately, the story seems like a minor episode in their lives–they see something scary and run away–that hasn’t had much impact. This was very disappointing to me.

Again, I think the story provides a great opportunity for a stronger ending. I love the idea that they stop at a coffee shop and it feels like “a different world, almost like we were watching a movie.” This is only told now, not shown, so it doesn’t have the impact it might. Instead, this could be shown through vivid sensory details. Exactly what seems strange, and what is the nature of this strangeness? Perhaps the narrator senses the glowing blackness underlying everything, which provides this false, movie-like brightness to everything. Maybe Jane sees it; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe the narrator sees the glowing blackness in Jane’s eyes. Maybe Jane jumps out at the narrator when he comes out of the bathroom, scaring him, and we realize the characters have now exchanged roles. In any case, I’d really like to see that the characters are profoundly changed by this experience, and I’d like to see that they haven’t escaped the horror. That would allow the story to create a lingering, haunting resonance.

I hope my comments are helpful. The story feels fresh and well written, and it kept me involved throughout.

—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review July 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 Calico Project – Chapter 1 by Christine Berman

I like the depth and detail of the worldbuilding in this chapter. There’s been a lot of thought put into the setting and the background, and the cast of characters is already large, with lots of complex connections.

As I read, I kept coming back to two things that I think would help the story work better.

Pacing

Noss does a lot of running from place to place on deadlines. First to find the missing professor before the shuttle takes off, then to make it to her anniversary celebration, and finally to escape from the murderous intruder. All of these actions are constructed on a framework of urgency, but the accumulation of details slows it down.

Science fiction loves its exposition, and a well-built world invites a fair bit of it. The writer’s job is to keep the story moving while the world unfolds within it. But story movement and the characters’ physical movement are not necessarily the same thing.

Noss runs around while the story takes place elsewhere. In the beginning, there are two things happening: the cheerful ruse to get her home in time for her anniversary celebration, and the discovery that her research has finally produced results. Both, logistically, take more than fifteen minutes to play out, and she’s external to both. Her partner is the one who concocts the ruse, and the Professor on the ground and Malia on the space station tell her what she’s been doing and how it’s succeeded.

What if all of this activity were rolled up into a tighter scene, in which Noss gives the reader a view of Earth and her purpose there, discovers for herself that her project is a success, all while rushing to get everything locked in before her apparent deadline—and then learns that the deadline is Alam’s idea? This would speed up the pacing and put Noss in the middle of the story-action. And then we’d get the laughing reversal of, “Oh! Alam’s pulled one on me.”

I thought for a while that Alam was the shuttle pilot, but he appears to be doing his thing elsewhere–it’s a bit confusing. Could he be the pilot? Would that work in terms of who he is and what he does for the station?

Once on the station, having rushed to get there, Noss slows down. There’s no urgency really. She focuses on work without thinking of Alam at all, then when she’s reminded, she informs Malia (and the reader) that he’s out on a flight, so there’s plenty of time to get some work done.

What this does is show the reader that what’s presented as urgent is actually not. The tension ramps up, then when we get to the payoff, it turns out there isn’t any. It’s a trick to make sure Noss gets home in time, but once she does, she doesn’t need to be there for hours.

The same thing happens in the final sequence. The potential is tremendous: an intruder on the station impersonating Alam, a handful of characters with speaking roles killed, Noss apparently next in line. But when the intruder reaches her, all he does is tell her to run. The stakes weren’t high after all. She’s not in actual danger. She runs away and locks herself up safely in her quarters.

Narrative pacing has its ups and downs, its fast gallops and its breathing spaces, but in this chapter, the deadlines pile one on top of the other. It’s possible they can end in a pause, as Noss takes stock of all that’s happened, but the action up to that point should move along briskly. It escalates from “must find Professor and make the shuttle” to “intruder on station, innocents killed.”

Keeping up the pace means tightening the timeline not only in the opening sequence but in the middle one, when Noss arrives at the station. If she gets there, expects to meet Alam, but runs into the intruder instead, there’s no slackening of tension. The expository bits can be sketched in as they’re needed, but quickly, to keep from impeding the movement of the story.

Speed is the key here, and it needs tight plotting, which includes tight writing. A lot of description, a lot of adjectives, slows the pace and weakens the suspense. The time for those would be in the quiet zones, the intervals of slower movement in between the action scenes. This first chapter is very much an action scene.

The second thing I would think about is Character Motivation. This includes emotional arcs and characters’ actions and interactions. On the most basic, word-by-word level, there are some odd physiological descriptions that might bear rethinking: Noss’s heart thrashes, her stomach flutters, her chest compresses, every muscle locks and freezes. This seems intended to convey high emotion, but as a reader I kept stopping to try to figure out how these things are physiologically possible, or in the case of the chest compressions, to disentangle the image from the medical term.

Images can be vivid and unusual, but their meaning should be clear, and their emotional affect should match the overall level of the scene. The same applies to characters’ words and actions. When Noss forgets about Alam after she arrives on the station, on the one hand it’s clear she’s married to her work, which is solid characterization, but on the other, she’s here at this particular point because it’s their anniversary. That would logically stay on top of her thought processes even if she does have time to get to work before the party. If she then gets lost in her work, that makes more sense–and Malia could remind her, “Hey! It’s almost time for your date!”

The intruder’s arrival is shocking, and the deaths of her neighbors should hit Noss hard. So should the fact that he’s impersonating Alam. I think she would deduce that something has happened to Alam, and rather than running to her quarters and hiding, would try to get as much information as she can, as fast as she can, about whether he’s still out on patrol and whether he’s safe. Then she would use that data to either find him if he’s missing, or alert him if he’s away from the station.

I would also wonder why, having killed several inhabitants including a child, the intruder lets Noss go. Why doesn’t he kill her, too? Even if that will be explained later, here I think she would wonder about it, and be emotionally affected by it. Might she be grieved and/or angry about the child, guilty that she’s still alive, and frantic about Alam? What other emotions might tangle themselves up in her, and what might they motivate her to do? Would she try to protect the station? What about her work? Would she want to make sure that’s safe, either before or right after she’s checked on Alam?

There’s a good story here, with good bones. I would read on to find out if Alam is all right, and if the station is undergoing a larger attack, and what Noss does about it and how it all comes out.

–Judith Tarr