Editor’s Choice Review June 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.

Dark Shepherds: The Burn Notice by M Lachi

This is an interesting piece, with some intricate worldbuilding and a lot of careful thought about the setting, background, and characters. Reading it is an immersive experience. There’s so much detail, so much interwoven and interlaced descriptions, ideas, actions and thoughts.

What I’d like to talk about in the context of this Editor’s Choice is not so much the word-for-word, but a general concept that the author has clearly been thinking about, and has been working on. That is the idea of writing tight.

In terms of writing style, one size emphatically does not fit all. It’s not just about voice and word choice and process, but also about the needs of the individual work. A stripped-down, pared-to-the-bone style works for a thriller, for example, where the action is key and the rapid movement of the plot is what brings the reader in. A fantasy epic on the other hand, or a Dune or Exordium-style space opera, needs room to stretch out; takes time for lengthy passages of description and exposition; and explores the lives and surroundings of multiple characters.

This chapter leans distinctly in the latter direction, and in the prologue especially, the prose is a Celtic knotwork of repetition and recapitulation, piling up words and phrases to evoke a sense of complex and many-layered perception. This is the author’s style. But as with everything, there are ways to make that style, along with the author’s ideas, clearer and more accessible to readers.

I like to ask questions when I’m revising or when I’m suggesting revisions for others’ mss. With a ms. that could use some pruning, I look for answers to one or more of the following:

Has this information appeared before in the narrative? Does it need to be repeated here? If so, can I add something new to it, some aspect that wasn’t addressed before, that moves the story forward and further develops the characters or the setting?

Is this information essential for the understanding of the story at this particular point? Can I leave it out and still have the story make sense? Can I move it somewhere else in the narrative where it will be more effective? Does it need to be there at all?

Am I using too many words? Have I piled on the qualifiers? Can I pare them away without losing the meaning? Can my verbs be active and straightforward (walked instead of was walking, for example) and can my phrases be leaner, without extra padding? If I use two or more versions of the same concept, do I need all of them? Can I pick one and let the rest be implied by the context?

Am I repeating the same words over and over? Repetition of words and phrases can be very effective; politicians know this, as do motivational speakers. But as with most rhetorical effects, a little goes a long way. Can I keep it down to once a paragraph or once a page? Can I save it for when I really want the idea to pop? If I take it all out, has the story lost emphasis or vividness?

Am I trusting my reader enough? This question goes along with repetition of words and ideas, as well as infodumps, background information, and so on. Am I trusting my reader to understand what I’m saying? Am I including information that she can pick up through implication? Do I need to remind her of information she’s already seen, especially if she’s seen it more than once? She may need a reminder if it’s been a while, but if it’s important and it’s just happened, she probably just needs a quick pointer, or else she’ll remember it well enough that I can get right to my point without stopping to fill her in.

Have I chosen the right details? As I’m setting up the scene and portraying the character, am I providing too much information? Is it the right information? Have I emphasized minor aspects of the scene or setting or character but written around the major ones? Can I sharpen the focus and, again, trust the reader to get the details I’ve left out through the few I’m chosen to leave in?

Have I chosen the right scene? Have I written the events and interactions that are key to the movement of the story? Have I provided essential information, or is that information consigned to the background? Are characters talking about events that happened offstage rather than experiencing them onstage? Do we need the conversation, or will the scene itself tell the story with more immediacy and effectiveness?

Am I keeping my eye on the prize? If you’re a stylist (as I am), the immediate prize for a writing session is the cascade of words in front of you. What can get lost in the words is what readers in general come to genre for, which is story. The words may be my prize, but for most readers, they’re color and spackle at best and a distraction at worst. Readers want a story that moves forward, that contains believable characters, that satisfies the impulse that brought them to the genre in general and this story in particular. If I give them lots of detailed worldbuilding, they’ll sit for it better than readers of other genres, but eventually they want that beginning-middle-end, rampup-crisis-denouement thing.

For that, I have to be careful about the words-to-story ratio. As with meat to bun in a burger, there are different schools of thought as to which is optimal, but they all come back sooner or later to the nom in the middle. That nom is the story, the plot, the progression of scenes toward some form of conclusion.

That’s what writing tighter can help the story do. Pruning the undergrowth, keeping the best effects, letting them stand out from the rest. This helps build stronger pacing, which is what story-movement is. And that keeps the reader reading, which is the ultimate goal.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review June 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.

Hymns Of Sand And Stone by Joanne Albertsen

“Hymns of Sand and Stone” caught my eye this month because of its immediate prose, sophisticated use of a complex protagonist, and a tension that rises up between sentences like groundwater. It’s a story about colonialist power dynamics that doesn’t simplify, rooted deeply in how its characters are handled–which is why, this month, I’d like to discuss subtle handling of an unreliable protagonist–and going beyond the Protagonist Is a Bad Person story.

The Protagonist Is a Bad Person story is one of the (many!) useful shorthands that come out of Strange Horizons’s Stories We’ve Seen Too Often page: a post their earlier editorial team made to document persistent slushpile trends and concepts that are so prevalent they’re hard to impress with. It’s a story that can be loosely described as a morality play or parable, one that only exists to impress on the reader fear for the consequences if they act the same way. And while there’s a loose validity in describing “Hymns of Sand and Stone” as examining how its protagonist behaves poorly, and gets a comeuppance in being personally colonized by the local magic, what I’m interested in is how it walks right past that trap into a full-on examination of colonialist power dynamics–how its protagonist behaves harmfully as part of a system of violence–and ends up as a deeply affecting and tension-filled illustration of colonized societies that felt emotionally real.

Crafting a story this carefully balanced takes both insight and skill, and there are a few notable craft decisions that help “Hymns of Sand and Stone” pull off its concept. The most standout is the choice of a second-person POV.

Writing in second person tends to pull strong reactions from readers, and other writers, but considering the subject matter of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”—colonialism, brutality, resistance—and the gaps between what the protagonist can see and the reader’s knowledge, I think it’s an exquisitely appropriate choice of point of view. One of the main effects of second person is explicit complicity between the reader and the protagonist, and for the vast majority of SFF readers, complicity is the core emotional question in a story about colonialism.

The second strong craft choice is how “Hymns of Sand and Stone” builds its fantasy culture on a psychological realism that is exceptionally well-seeded through the piece–and one which has its own arc of progression to follow. A portrait of a character is one thing, but “Hymns of Sand and Stone” includes the excellent decision to make its portrait dynamic. The protagonist’s opening sentence—”You just want to help”—can be at first taken at face value, and then quickly slides from that into “can’t fault the goals, but don’t like the methods” and “we didn’t like it but,” until by the end of the piece, that insistence on benevolent help has morphed into contempt and snarling hate.

Effective fiction often has an arc of growth: something changes in the character between the first paragraph and the last. In “Hymns of Sand and Stone” the protagonist’s personality does not change, but it is revealed, in a way that creates that feeling of change and motion–and echoes up on the thematic level to deepen and complicate into a whole comment on colonialism and how those types of helpers build up and bolster its effects.

It’s an especially effective trajectory to take with a character in the between-place the protagonist occupies: an object of power and pity to Elly and the other servants, and a subject to her husband—one who knows everything about how to minimize his violence and escape his notice. I love the messiness of the power dynamic here: how realistic it is, how alone the protagonist is caught between those power positions, and how that still doesn’t excuse her part in the system that keeps the Sandsbloods subjugated. It’s a position that inspires complex emotional reaction–disgust, compassion, fascination, complicity, and then ultimately self-examination. It’s a position that’s well-calibrated to create effect in readers.

And that, I think, is the major triumph of “Hymns of Sand and Stone”–and what, I think, makes it jump far and away above the vengeful air of a comeuppance story: at no point does it tell readers how to feel about its protagonist. The narrative isn’t assuming an authority over the protagonist, punishing or rewarding her; “Hymns of Sand and Stone” is entirely, on the text level, descriptive. The subtext definitely has opinions on her choices and situation, especially when Elly and the other servants are onscreen, or being imagined, but the text level lets her speak, and that transforms a narrative that could have been coercive–”feel this way about this attitude; these are the rules to follow”–into something that’s descriptive and demonstrative, that gives readers a clear window into a very complex, very common attitude to let us grapple with it ourselves–in second person, in you, in a position of full complicity. “Hymns of Sand and Stone” lets complicated things be complicated, and therefore makes room for a complex reaction in readers: one that’s ultimately going to be more memorable than a platitude.

It’s a significantly accomplished and subtle piece of work, and I look forward to seeing it in print.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review May 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.

Sowing The Seeds by Fredrick Hudgin

I’m somewhat late to the plate thanks to the dog’s broken leg and subsequent surgery (he will recover), with apologies, but here I am at last. I chose this piece because of the author’s note. I could see the enthusiasm and the air of sheer fun, and I went into the story expecting a light adventure.

I did get that, so that part of the mission for me was accomplished. As I read with my crit-hat on, I found myself falling into worldbuilding mode, as I do when I’m helping my writing students develop their worlds and characters.

Usually I start asking questions. The author doesn’t have to answer all or even most of them—just the ones that help the most with the underpinnings of the story. Some will get a firm, “No! That’s not where I’m going at all!” Others will give rise to their own questions, and maybe the world will expand and the story follow suit. And still others may get the classic editorial “Oh crap yes, you’re right, I have to fix that.”

With that in mind, here are some questions to ponder while the revision proceeds.

In your introductory note you say, “And why not make the claim jumpers Mer people! I don’t see many Mer people in Sci Fi. And make the captain female!” All of which is fun stuff, but my question is, is it new or radical to have [a] a female captain or [b] a female mer-person? Aren’t merfolk more commonly seen as female, i.e. mermaids?

Is there anything else you can do to make this species and this captain different? Do they have to be binary? Is there a reason why male would be default and female unusual enough to be worth noting? Or why species need to come in two genders? Not one? Or three? Or however many? Or no gender at all?

Quite far along in the story, you reveal that Captain Phillium is an octopus. It might help to know this at the start—the reader can get a clearer picture of him. I happen to love octopuses, and there are things about them that might add some depth and extra flavor to your portrayal of this character.

One of the things about the species is that it is highly intelligent but also extremely short-lived. As soon as an octopus mates, if it’s male, it’s either eaten or it dies soon after mating. If it’s female, it may eat its mate, and it will die shortly after its eggs hatch.

This means that a retro human-style marriage with a wife at home is kind of unlikely. Unless he’s out in space having a last hurrah before he dies, and she’s home incubating the eggs, starving slowly and expecting to die soon. Or they’ve married in order to reproduce, but the actual act will happen after this voyage—and he’s fully expecting to go home, have sex, and become his wife’s dinner. He may be plotting all sorts of ways to make the babies but still escape alive (but he’ll die within months anyway because once that part of his life is done, so is he).

Or, is marriage for this species something different? What would it be? A business contract? A political alliance? Why would octopuses need marriage?

Bear in mind too that female octopuses are often much larger than the males. Would it make more sense for the captain to be female, since males are so much smaller and more vulnerable? Or have males gone into space as part of a culture-wide campaign to avoid being eaten by the females back home? Have the females accepted this? Or are they the big corporate bosses? (I have more questions about those below.)

Much the same would apply to your arachnids. Big, dominant females who eat their husbands. Is your whole spacefaring culture about males having what fun and freedom they can before their inevitable death? You do have various mammalian types, but in subordinate roles; the primary roles are generally held by octopoids and arachnids—for whom gender and reproduction are very different than they are for other species.

Now think about what this does to your story about claim jumpers led by a female captain. If merpeople relate to one another more or less as humans do, though perhaps with a tendency toward matriarchy (does their leader need to be a king? Why not a queen?), consider how deep the differences are with a species for which the war between the sexes is real, inevitable, and deadly.

For the mer captain, maybe this is just business. For Captain Phillium, a female adversary must, according to everything he knows, be out to kill and eat him. How will that affect the intensity of their reactions to each other? Will he see a deadly threat when all she intends is a bit of petty larceny?

Meanwhile, what about the species Phillium is ordered to elevate? Why primates? Why not octopoids or arachnids? Wouldn’t he gravitate more toward his own kind? Are there solid business reasons for corporate to prefer primates over other species?

Or is there another motive here? Phillium is about to raise up a species that is near-immortal by octopoid standards, and for which reproduction is not a death sentence. And, what’s more, the male tends to be larger than the female. Is this a strike back at the tyranny of octopoid biology? A campaign of subversion against the females? A long-running political game played by his superiors, which Phillium might begin to see as he carries out his orders?

After all, the process of seeding planets is a really, really long game. Octopoids individually are extremely short-lived. Who is really in charge? What species began the whole process? Is it still extant? Would Phillium be aware of it? If so, how would he feel about it? If not, would that ignorance be intentional on the part of the big bosses? Do they have ulterior motives that might come into play here, with two different species moving in to raise up two different sets of not yet sentient life forms?

What if both applications were accepted? Is there a reason why that’s not allowed? As it is, one species is aquatic and the other is not. If multiple species can get along on starships, why not on planets? Wouldn’t corporate see this as a way to double up on their investment?

These are just some of the questions I found myself asking as I read. What you do with them is entirely up to you. It really is a fun universe, with some very interesting characters and cultures. There’s lots of scope for further stories, too.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review May 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 Hole In The Flame by J.L. Roberts

I am in love with the title of this story. It’s unique, it’s evocative, it’s directly relevant to the plot and the protagonist. It caught my eye right away and drew me in.

I really like a number of things about the story. The depiction of the fire as a happy sentient, and Cassie’s ability to see and share it. The concept of ghost/memories/apparitions as a form of time travel, and fire as the power source. The images of both the fire and the time past, which are vivid and evocative.

I do have some questions and confusions about the draft. Some will be resolved with a line edit and polish, breaking up paragraphs for greater clarity, and so on. Others may need expansion or clarification, or possibly rethinking.

Do I feel anything for Cassie? I see that she’s confident, that she has a plan, that she’s not afraid of the fire and in fact she’s pleased and excited about it. What I’m not getting is why.

It’s evident that fire for her is a friendly force, and that it’s a kind of time travel. Does she pass through into the past every time she’s called to a fire? Or has she been aiming for this result and achieving it by degrees, and finally she’s succeeded? I’d add the option of her not knowing what will happen if she follows Bobby’s apparition, but the impression I get is that she wants it and that’s why she’s here.

This leads me to a fundamental question. Why does she want to go back in time? What is she trying to accomplish? What does she expect will happen when she gets there? Is it death she’s aiming for? Or is she trying to change the past? How does Bobby’s voice enter into this, and what is the distinction between the voice she hears in the outside world and the one she’s hearing inside the fire? Is this some sort of revenge for past sins, evil force trying to devour her, old love wanting her back, past trying to get her to alter it and possibly bring Bobby (or Sam) back to life, or…?

You don’t have to spell out every single thing; you can be mysterious and allusive. Part of the appeal of the subgenre this story seems to fit into (on which more below) is that it doesn’t explain everything. It leaves some things to the reader’s imagination. It revolves around ambiguity. But it’s important to be just clear enough that the reader is sure the obscure bits are meant to be so.

I wondered as I read, how Cassie could get away with “accidentally” cutting off communications every time. Wouldn’t she be called on it? Would her fellow firefighters and her superiors detect a pattern? Has Edgar started to catch on, and that’s what the body language is about when he finds the communications device she’s dropped? When he comes back and tries to carry her out, is this something he’s done before, or that he’s been expecting to have to do? What are the undercurrents here?

It seems clear that he sees the apparition of Bobby. Is this a first? Has it happened before? Should Cassie be more worried about it than she is? Or is she so sure she’s leaving forever that it doesn’t matter?

I am a bear of little brain, and I did not quite get who Bobby is, or whether Sam is also Bobby, because Bobby disappears near the end and the hole in the flame becomes Sam. Are they both supposed to be there? Is Bobby the guide and Sam the one he’s leading her to? What would he do that? What does he want from her?

The line edit I mentioned above will help answer my questions, along a thorough proofread. In the draft, words tumble over each other, phrases and sentences repeat verbatim, and the effect is rather like the fire itself: exuberant, over the top, and headlong as it tumbles through the telling of the story. There’s great energy in it, at the expense of clarity; but that’s what revision is for. I’d definitely be in favor of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm, but layering in a clearer sense of who and what and why.

I had one further thought as I read and reread the story. It’s labeled Urban Fantasy, and this led me to reflect on genre markers, tropes and signals that tell a reader what to expect within the confines of the genre.

When I think of UF, I think of an urban setting, of course, and the supernatural or the fantastic underpinning a more or less contemporary setting. The popular trope of the kickass female hunter of supernatural beings, or the noir detective investigating odd or inexplicable crimes, isn’t all there is to it, but it’s an indicator of the voice and “feel” of urban fantasy.

The force of nature personified, its gleeful destructiveness, the appearance of ghosts or revenants from the past, the protagonist who is compelled to follow them even if it means her death—those all say horror or dark fantasy to me. If this were UF I’d look for Cassie to have some way of controlling or being controlled by supernatural beings—the fire, in this case. She’d either fight it or ally with it, for reasons that would become apparent in the course of the story.

Does it make a difference what label an author or publisher puts on a story? It does, I think: quite a lot in terms of marketing the final draft, but also in regard to what the reader expects.

Readers tend to like their labels; they know what they’re getting, they know how to react as the story unfolds, and they also know what kind of payoff they can reasonably expect to get. If the story presents a couple, for example, and the reader is told it’s a romance, she looks for the story to focus fairly tightly on an emotional arc (down as well as up) culminating in a happy ending. If it’s a space opera, on the other hand, the couple may or may not get together romantically, and their relationship won’t be the first priority; the heart of the story will be the adventure in space.

If the label isn’t quite right, the story can be very good or even brilliant but still draw reader criticism and editorial rejections. It’s like the cooking shows in which the judges will say, “You called this a semifreddo but it’s a very tasty, old-fashioned American ice cream. You promised us a particular thing, and you didn’t provide it. That’s why we had to chop you.”

Here, we have a pretty satisfyingly atmospheric dark fantasy with ghosts and a side of time travel. Our protagonist has a thing for fire, she can see her past in it, and she ends up giving herself to it. Relabeling the story may more clearly reflect what the story is about, and give it a better chance of reaching the audience that will most appreciate it.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review May 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.

Moongirl by Sharon Cullars

Set in San Diego, 2202, “Moongirl” shows us an interesting and unique future, in which monsters, visible only to those on a particular drug, eat humans.  Selene struggles to decide what to do with this knowledge.  The story has some nice emotion to it, since those previously on the drug, including Selene’s friend, Anne, and Anne’s mother, have killed themselves because of what they’ve seen.  The most intense and disturbing moment, for me, occurs when Selene sees her drawing of a girl on a swing grow animated, and then the girl is eaten by a monster.  That’s really haunting, and it’s something I’ve never seen before.

The main area of the story that I think can be improved is focus.  The story right now includes more than a short story can hold.  The focus needs to be narrowed to the elements necessary to create a powerful impact at the story’s end.  Other elements need to be cut.  I’ll discuss this in more detail below.

I think there is way too much plot here for a short story.  Since the vast majority of the plot has occurred before the present action, that means the story is filled with exposition (background information), most of it in the form of flashbacks.  Roughly three out of eight pages, almost half the story, is exposition.  If you find that much of your story is exposition, that usually means you’ve started the story in the wrong place.  Generally, the reader wants to be swept up in the present action of the story, with minimal amounts of exposition that provide a few key pieces of information about what happened earlier.  The story would be stronger if it was re-plotted to focus on present action with only a little exposition.

Right now, the present story has quite a weak plot.  Basically, Selene takes the drug, sees the monster, thinks back over all that happened, and decides to fight the monsters by giving others the drug, so they too can see.  The causal chain is weak, because there’s no particular reason why Selene makes the decision on this night, at this moment.  And she’s passive throughout, mainly watching and thinking, not struggling to achieve a goal.

My advice is to restructure the story to move the more emotionally powerful material into the present action.  The story could begin with Selene saying the line currently on p. 7:  “What is it you see, Anne?”  She and Anne could be on the rooftop, with Anne standing too close to the edge.  Selene tries to convince her to step away from the edge.  This scene could combine some of the dialogue from p. 7 with some of the dialogue from p. 9 (“I see things, Moon.  They’re here with us but no on sees them,” etc.).  Anne tells her to take the duffel.  Anne says her mother couldn’t handle it, and she can’t handle it, but maybe Selene can.  Selene senses Anne is about to jump and runs forward and grabs her, but Anne slips through her fingers and falls.  This would be a very powerful opening scene, and you could slow it down and describe their interactions some more and show Selene’s emotions.  The current version seems rushed and tells emotions with emotional labels (confused, frightened, desperately, hoping, etc.) more than shows them.

I think the details about Anne’s mother and how she died aren’t important to the story.  It’s enough to know that she took the drug and killed herself.  That’s all we need.  The focus should be on Anne, who is closest to Selene and who Selene tried and failed to save.  Since the story has too much plot, some needs to be cut away, and I would suggest most of Anne’s mother’s story could be cut.

This could be followed by the scene with Selene in the warehouse taking the drug for the first time and seeing the girl on the swing be eaten.  In that same scene, she could flee the warehouse after the girl is eaten and see more monsters on the streets, eating.  She could rush up to Liam and ask him what’s happening, but he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  She runs off, horrified, seeing people being killed, and it’s so awful she can’t stand living in the world.  She understands now why Anne and her mother killed themselves and she prepares to throw herself in front of a bus.  But she realizes that Anne trusted her and wanted her to change things, to end this.  She can’t just kill herself and let this go on.  She runs to Liam and tells him he has to take the drug.  He fights her at first, but finally she convinces him to do it, for her.  He’ll be the first of her army.  And she’ll stop them.

Compressing the time line, putting all the important events into the present of the story, and allowing Selene to struggle–first to save Anne, then to deal with her horror and despair, then to create the first soldier in her army–will strengthen the plot and make Selene a stronger protagonist.

In addition to the plot, there is also more setting here than the story requires.  The technology and futuristic setting seems irrelevant to the story.  Invisible, people-eating monsters can exist in any time.  I suggest simply setting the story in the present day.  It will be much more disturbing to think that monsters live among us and eat us than to think that in some imaginary future they will do so.

The alternate dimension also seems unnecessary.  That doesn’t add to Selene’s struggle or decision.

Simplifying the setting will also allow the point of view to be simplified.  Right now, it’s mainly omniscient, moving at times into Selene’s head.  The omniscient point of view keeps me distant from Selene for most of the story and prevents me from getting very emotionally involved.  I think the story would work much better in a close third-person limited omniscient POV, limited to Selene’s head.  The omniscient viewpoint allows for explanation of the technology, but if the technology is cut, then the POV can simply stay in Selene’s head and allow us to experience events with her.

Narrowing the focus should allow the strong core elements of the story to be further developed.

I really enjoy the disturbing premise and the emotional connection between Selene and Anne.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Editor’s Choice Review May 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 Restaurant At The End Of The War by Clint Spivey

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” grabbed my attention this month for its thoughtful take on a post-MilSF future—the scattered directions people, supplies, and refugees go after peace is declared—and the way it’s genuinely advancing the conversation that most stories in that subgenre lay out. This month, I’d like to talk about the balance between innovative and classic story elements, and how we take a subgenre conversation down a slightly different road while staying firmly in the subgenre where we started.

“The Restaurant at the End of the War” establishes its innovative bona fides quickly with a low-flying perspective on the standard MilSF intergalactic war. It’s entirely plausible, without needing to explain, how a human and Mewlani would build a bond working in military kitchens—and refreshing for me as a reader to see work that acknowledges and centres those cooks and support workers, and gets that war takes infrastructure: infrastructure that’s still there, and winding down, after hostilities are over, just like a war’s vets, translators, and refugees. There’s a great resonance between a restaurant built on military surplus and how every character in “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is moving from a military life to a civilian one.

I feel it’s also rare to see MilSF portray the sheer, unblinking structural obstacles that racism puts up at every turn. The ways Stain authorities and The Ledge work to prevent Wallroy and Blistren’s business from succeeding feels far more realistic than broken bottles and random slurs, and Stain’s casual corruption presents a real threat, largely because it’s clear nobody’s swooping in to save Sluice, and that the barriers are not about to end.

All this comes back to the sheer quality of the worldbuilding nested unobtrusively in “The Restaurant at the End of the War,” and it adds up to an overall excellent sense of atmosphere. There is a whole universe of backstory implied in how Sustain has turned to Stain, the dirtiness of a neighbourhood where streets were once named Prosperity and Empire, ships are named for non-Western rulers, the krone as the currency of record, and the fact that Wallroy absolutely butchers his Mewlani pronunciation, but tries anyway. Wallroy works wonderfully as a POV character who’s observant but not hyping his observations, or trying to be overclever: his casual ability to differentiate poverty from danger makes his background feel realistic, and the details he relates—the beard just long enough to flout army regs is my favourite example—are legitimately great tells, ones which encapsulate whole relationships with authority and safety in single details.

And yet, for all those notable and newer details, “The Restaurant at the End of the War” is unmistakably a MilSF story. There’s little explanation of the war between humans and Mewlani, which allows readers to fill the standard intergalactic war tropeset in those gaps. Wallroy, even as an army cook, still wraps his world in the structure and regulations of the military: he differentiates less between military and civilian personalities than different kinds of military personalities. I know what kind of story this is, in what conversation: while it’s innovating in certain respects, it’s keeping one foot firmly in topics that as a reader, I’m familiar with, and understand—and letting me see the direction it wants to take MilSF in and appreciate that innovation for what it is.

It’s that balance that keeps—on the other end—elements like the archetypical nature of Meat and Hook from feeling stale: what might come off as overdone in another piece just feels like another weight for the standard trope side of the balance here, and is peculiarly grounding instead.

There are a few skipped beats I’d like to note: The moment where Wallroy and Blistren realize their containers of slange have been impounded—and the potential setup from The Ledge—is so quick as to be almost missable, making me need to back up half a scene later to establish that conflict in my head.

I’d also look again at the ending of the piece. The revelation that the Mewlani group are the red-headed soldier’s translators is a touch on the nose: It’s a very close analogue to the U.S. and Iraq, perhaps too close, and is the one place where the narrative strays into direct allegory.

The author asked for comment on whether “The Restaurant at the End of the War” oversimplifies the complex issue of refugee crises in the wake of war, which is a difficult question to tackle: There are as many ways to tell a refugee story as there are refugees, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is an irresponsible take. Stain is set up as a morally messy economy, one Wallroy and Blistren are quite clearly buying right into: theirs is a business run on giving former enemies a little taste of home, but only workable because this tourist town is on the route for prisoner repatriation. Wallroy and Blistren are doing a kindness no one else will, but they’re not doing it for free; they’re making sure toys are ready for impulse buying by families who have nothing, and there’s a cold realism to that kind of profiteering, and that kind of deeply mixed action.

If anything, I’d say “The Restaurant at the End of the War” wraps up a little too tidily: The forces of corruption and racism are held off at least for the meantime by plain force, good guys are identified, and everything will, for the meantime, Be All Right. It’s a very military ending, fully in line with the values of armies—evil is defeated by force and hearts-and-minds propaganda—but I’m not sure it fits the story that precedes it.

I think the main strength behind that ending working out is the plain fact that “The Restaurant at the End of the War” isn’t actively selling a solution. It’s presenting a situation, and the relative lack of agenda might let the piece get away with a little wishful thinking. However, I’d suggest that ending is worth the examination given to the worldbuilding on Stain, Wallroy’s past, and the other details of this universe. It’s not bad as it is; it has the potential to be something special.

Overall, this is a thoughtful piece that reads lightly, and punches seriously above its weight, and I look forward to seeing it find a home.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review April 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.

Beckoning Of The Gate by Benjamin Ryan

The first question I have here is, this is a short story, yes? Or at least a shorter work, below novel length. I’m curious to know what the intended length is, because that will help determine a particular direction of revision.

When I started reading, I got the sense of epic right away: word choice, sentence structure, and overall voice and pacing speak to the genre of epic fantasy. We used to call it high fantasy, in part because it was written in the high style. It’s grand, it’s serious, it evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

That’s the prologue. The first chapter drops down a couple of levels of style with its title, which seems perhaps ironic, and its setting, evidently a more modern (if not contemporary) era and an academic setting. The purpose, it seems, is to convey exposition in the form of a lesson in a classroom. And then we shift to Santha, who may perhaps be the, or a, protagonist; through her we get a view of the world beyond the classroom, which has a sort of general fantasy, perhaps at most nineteenth-century, feel—definitely not the age of motorized vehicles and modernist architecture.

In an epic fantasy novel, the pacing might work. It’s leisurely, it takes time to explore and explain. The prologue sets up a situation full of danger and jeopardy, whereas the first chapter is mainly about introducing key characters and establishing the framework of the world. At this speed, we have quite a way to go through plots and reversals to a conclusion.

I might, as others apparently have noted, want to see less exposition at the beginning; when a story is frontloaded like this, it can be hard for a reader these days to keep reading. Readers are all in such a hurry. They’ve lost the habit of settling in for a nice, long, relaxing excursion through the byways of a world.

If this is a shorter work, even a novella, the prose will need pruning. The frequent repetitions, the recursions, the classroom discussion going over and over the same essential information, may keep some of their scope and expanse, but most of it will have to serve the needs of the form. And in shorter fiction, every word has to count. There’s not much room to maneuver.

I see the potential here. The prologue presents an intriguing situation, between the hunter and the prey. The first chapter hints at interesting character interactions and possible conflicts, as well as questions to be answered about the situation in the prologue. I’m curious to know how the prologue will resonate through the story proper, and I want to see what Santha is up to and why she’s talking and acting in these particular ways. And will the students and their teacher have a role to play later? If so, what?

The fact I’m asking questions is a good thing. The goal of keeping the reader reading is well within reach. With quicker pacing and meticulous pruning of the words, there will be plenty of space for developing plot and characters, even within the constraints of the shorter form.

One thing I would recommend is paying close attention to the meanings of words and phrases. The epic style can be lay on the sweep and the scope, but the stylist has to take care that the words don’t fly off the rails. It’s a balancing act between high grandeur and the reader blinking and going, “What?”

Elaborate and intricate prose can demand quite a bit of the reader—it’s not mean to be skimmed; it has to be read word for word. It also has to be clear and cogent, and every word must mean exactly what the author intends it to mean. It’s important to have a strong command of the language, so that when words and phrases take on unusual configurations, it’s evident to the reader that the author meant to do that.

The prose here, in short, needs work. Paring and pruning for concision, but also rethinking and recasting for clarity. I pulled a few phrases from the prologue to illustrate.

tightly-bundled hush: Not sure how a hush can be bundled. “Bundled” tends to mean rolled up tight, tied up in a bundle, or possibly in modern use, included in a package of some sort (usually virtual—book bundle, software bundle). What other word would work here, and come closer to the intended meaning?

tall pines and sentinels overshadowing a small troop of cottages, and later, pines and sentinels: What do you mean by “sentinels”? A sentinel is a watchman, one who stands guard. The pines might serve as sentinels in some way, but the phrasing seems to indicate that there’s a second variety of tree. What would that be?

wisps of warm air exerted from recent and vigorous exercise: You can say the air exerted itself, but air can’t be exerted from or by anything. The word that might work here is “exuded,” as in exuded by, but that’s not quite right, either; the connotation is more of sweating or producing moisture rather than vapor. “Wisps” contributes to the confusion, because it usually refers to a visible phenomenon, like a wisp of fog. Perhaps “emitted”?

The heaping up of words here adds to the length of the story without adding clarity. What’s needed is a phrase referring to panting from vigorous exercise.

bound headlong at the fleeing figure in hopes of ambush and forcing panic: I had to unpack this one to find the sense. The correct form of the verb is “bounded.” “Headlong” isn’t necessary; the sense of strong forward movement is included in the verb. The second half of the phrase is actually a bit too compressed. He hopes to ambush the fugitive, and he’s trying to make her panic. I’d open that up to make it clearer.

There are a number of odd uses of prepositions. Compelled him on is almost there, but “compelled him onward” would be just a bit more apt. Closed the ground to his quarry would perhaps more accurately be “closed in on his quarry,” and cold buried itself into her palm (as with her face pressed “into” a tree trunk earlier) is just a hair off true. “Into” has an almost thrusting movement to it in this context, with a sense of being forcibly inserted within, and especially with regard to the face and the tree, is a bit too strong. In both cases, “in” would be the way to go.

And finally, her face shot upwards is a striking image, but what it conveys is that her face flew off her skull and shot into the sky. I believe the meaning is milder—she looked up sharply, or her head was flung back, or…? The phrase tries to be vivid, but results in confusion as to what exactly it means.

It’s very important when writing the epic style, to be firmly in control, even while giving the impression of verbal exuberance. It’s very much a case of a little going a long way, and being extremely careful of what exactly that little is—words, phrases, coinages and alterations of the usual ways of framing ideas. It’s a virtuoso performance, and when done well, it can be exhilarating to read–while also being clear about what is happening and where it’s all going.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review April 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 Zjelhkar – Chapter 1 by Beth Lomnitzer

Let me begin with my Standard Disclaimer, which is that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Every writer has her own process, and that process is how she gets the words on the page. Once they’ve reached that point, that’s when we can start applying more standardized principles of editing and revision.

I believe writers should embrace their process. Whatever works, whatever gets those words down. Let it happen. Don’t worry about being right or wrong or anywhere in between.

I particularly enjoyed this opening chapter because it represents the polar opposite of my process, which is downright minimalist. Bare minimum of words required to get the ideas on the page. I always have to go back later and fill in—sometimes extensively. I’ll write fifty words, and in one epic instance, had to turn them into fifty thousand. Usually it’s more like five hundred or a thousand, but you get the idea.

Here we have a process that layers in words and images and concepts, often the same ones expressed slightly differently in each iteration, with exacting detail and an almost poetic heaping up of repetition. What actually happens is short and fairly simple, and the revision process will involve paring and pruning and trimming to bring out the bones of the story. Much of the wealth of words will go into reserve, either to be called on later, or to remain in the background. Choosing the exact right words or concepts will encompass those that have been pared away.

And that’s a fine thing. It’s the process. It’s like sculpture: finding the shape in the stone.

The question that first drew me to this submission was whether there is enough here to keep the reader engaged through a full-length novel. The bones of the story here are:

A storm is raging. Mazy runs toward a cave. She has apparently been here before, or (we find out a bit later) has heard about it—it’s not quite clear. The cave is flooding; she attempts to divert the water. After some difficulty, she succeeds. She then proceeds to reveal some of her past, and the fact that she has the power to psychically read any object she touches with her bare hands. Once she’s done so, she knows where to go next; she settles into wait out the night and the storm.

All of that is solid story-stuff. Big dramatic storm, refuge that requires a little work and danger to secure, flashback with hints of interesting past and potentially interesting future. That’s a reasonable start. As a reader, I’m curious about this family of survivors that appears to be all gone now except for Mazy, and I want to know how the world got this way, and whether her powers are unusual and where they come from and how she’ll use them—and will she find herself in jeopardy, or be worshipped as a god, or…?

When the draft is ready to get down to the word and sentence level, it will need pruning. In the opening paragraphs, note all the –ing words, and the repetitions—the same things described in slightly different ways, over and over. Choose one, the one that conveys the action or idea most clearly and cogently, and turn the –ing into an active construction, and the narrative will come into sharper focus and move more quickly.

Perhaps set a challenge in revision: to reduce each paragraph to three sentences, and to remove the finer details of what Mazy is doing, such as in the first paragraph, squinting through the rain, glancing over her shoulder, ducking and grabbing. Then once the bones of the narrative are visible, see what needs to go back in in order to make it clear what’s happening. Maybe some of it will. Maybe it’s clear as it is, and the reader can get the greater context from sketch on the page.

In the process of paring and trimming, think about which details are absolutely essential: that have to be there or the story doesn’t make sense. She’s crashing through the woods, which implies that she’s running; does she need to begin to run in the next sentence? Can all the crashing (note repeated word) and falling of trees and branches be condensed into a single, memorable image? For each repetition, pick the one that conveys most clearly what the reader should see and feel.

The same applies to the next paragraph, with repeated images of rain and wind. One each can contain them all, and that will move the narrative forward without losing the effect of the violent weather.

Especially in scenes with a lot of action and jeopardy, repetition slows everything down. The reader wants to race along with the character, pick up surroundings in quick impressions, and move rapidly toward a conclusion: in this case, the refuge of the cave. Short, active sentences, brief descriptions, a continual flow of new (rather than repeated) information, creates tension, and gives the reader the sense of urgency.

Revising-by-pruning can be tough at first; details are there because we believe they need to be there. But for the reader, very dense and repetitive prose can be confusing. I couldn’t manage to figure out whether she’d been in the cave before or had heard about it from—family? Someone? I wanted to be clearer on that point.

As for where to go from here, my best advice would be to finish the book first. Let the process be the process. I find that once we recognize our own particular way of getting the words down, and then embrace it, it’s much easier to cope with the revision stage. We know it’s coming, we know what the parameters are, but for now, as we write first draft, we do it the way we need to do it.

In the meantime, there is a story here, and a character who looks as if she can carry it. I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.

–Judith Tarr



Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, Horror

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

Eye Of The Beholder by Kathryn Jankowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, Short Story

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

The Earthly Garden by Christi Nogle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck!

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