Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Short Story

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

If All You’ve Known Is Winter by Russell Shannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Science Fiction

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

Homestead (Iris) by Kelli Kimble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck with this novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Fantasy

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

A Confluence Of Rivers by Lauren Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes both happen at once, as here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Horror

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

The Box by Jason Kreth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could be rewritten,

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

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

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

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 2019, Short Story

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

Inflexible (Part 1 of 2) by James Victor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, Science Fiction

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

Center Of The Universe 2.0, Chapter One, Part One by Noel Gonzales

I have a particular fondness for hard science fiction with a spice of wry or gonzo humor. This section of a chapter is on its way to ticking those boxes. And yes, I appreciate the author’s revised note. It’s amusing to envision our protagonist as “a big blue hand with an eyeball in his palm.”

I also approve of the efforts to pare the prose. Not every novel needs or should have that; sometimes, in some works and genres, more is actually more. What’s important is clarity, to make sure the reader understands what’s going on. Too much or little information can be equally confusing. On one hand there’s not enough information; on the other, there’s so much that it’s hard to tell what’s relevant and what’s not.

Here I think the prose could be even leaner and clearer. There’s one rhetorical device that works if used extremely sparingly, but it’s easy to tip over the top. That’s the repetition of a word or phrase in connected but slightly different contexts:

He could see the same numbers. “Good.” 

Good. As long as the supercomputers aboard The Lab were happy in crunching the parameters for the Muenghen Drive on the capsule. Good. As long as they were happy with the Muenghen Field the drive generated. And good as long as, when the field was activated, his capsule didn’t become a blossom of plasma as the previous two tests.

The repetition of “good” is effective the first two or three times, but after that it gets a little heavy. Cutting it back and varying the phrasing would get the point across and still keep the force of the word.

In this passage I also note an issue with grammar and syntax, the rather confusing final clause. It would probably be clearer with the insertion of “in” after “as”—“as in the previous two tests.”

There is a tendency throughout toward run-on sentences:

It would be an honor to be memorialized as a hero of the Empire who sacrificed his life but Plinge saw the merits to surviving an actual, successful launch.

There’s a lot going on here. Breaking it up would give each concept its own space, and make the whole easier to understand. And here again, there’s a bit of a syntax bobble: “saw the merits in” would be more correct.

He crossed his arms and watched the columns of numbers scroll and waited for them to settle on a specific locus.

This sentence might work better if divided into two or three, just to take a breath in between actions.

I note by the way that the sentence implies that he’s shaped like an Earth-type human, with arms to cross—a nice bit of description that’s directly relevant to the context.

Another aspect of clarity is organization of actions and ideas. A paragraph like this one

After a few seconds, he opened an eye to look around. He’d braced himself, prepared for anything, everything but not nothing. Not a thing. Well, he was alive. There was that. The knowledge allowed him to relax and breathe. Not a fucking thing. All the systems on all the monitors showed green. He checked the field integrity. The field was gone. Collapsed? He toggled off his mic. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,” then toggled it back on. “Control, any idea what happened?”

packs a lot in, with another example of words and phrases repeated over and over. The progression is chronological, which helps, but there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep up. One simple solution would be to break each separate action and reaction into its own paragraph. That way it’s easier to follow, and there’s time to take it all in before moving on to the next action.

I’d like to point to the use of dialogue, or more often monologue, as well. Not just expletives but the repeated use of “Wha’?” as a form of transition. I think I see what it’s trying to do: add a living voice to what might otherwise be straight narrative, and set a breezy, humorous tone. I do wonder if it’s just a little too breezy; if it sends the signals it’s meant to send. There’s almost a sense of mid-twentieth-century movie or tv dialogue about it, which distracts from the science-fictional setting and slackens the tension of the plot. There may be other ways to move the story forward and convey the characters’ reactions, which are a better fit for the genre and the story.

And finally, point of grammatical order: it’s is a contraction for “It is.” The possessive of it is “Its.” It’s one of those lovely little quirks of the English language.

I think this novel has quite a bit of potential. The opening sets us up for headlong action and stranger than strange new world and universes. A little further paring of the prose and a little more attention to grammar, syntax, and style will make the story come through more strongly and clearly, and give the characters even more room to shine.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, Horror

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

Rosary by Robert Balentine

Two qualities that stand out for me in “Rosary” are the organization and the process details.  So many stories are confusing or unclear, or they simply don’t carry me from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next.  This story provides some very clear cues so readers understand what each section is about and how it relates to previous and future sections.  For example, the story begins, “There were days when salsa making was a chore.”  This serves as a topic sentence, letting us know what the rest of the paragraph will discuss.  It also allows us to anticipate that later in the story, we’ll learn about days when salsa making wasn’t a chore.  And that’s exactly what happens.  This type of organization allows us to move effortlessly through the text and understand the relationship between the various parts.

Another strength that I enjoy is the detailed description of the process.   Often in stories, important processes are skimmed over because the author either doesn’t know how the process works or doesn’t care.  If the process isn’t important to the story, then we don’t need much (or any) detail.  But if it is important, as the salsa making is here, then putting us in the moment and providing vivid details that show us how the process works, gives us confidence in the author and brings us close to the character.  Learning a new process is also a pleasure readers enjoy, so including that in your story makes it more enjoyable.

For me, there are two main areas that I think could be improved.  First is the voice.  We’re in the third person limited viewpoint of Maria.  She’s from Colombia and speaks in Spanish a few times in the story.  But the narration, made up of her thoughts and descriptions of things, doesn’t use Spanish or sound influenced by Spanish at all.  For example, “Maria thought the hood was a fitting headstone above her mother’s salsa, possibly her greatest culinary achievement, which was saying something.”  My Spanish is from vague memories of my Argentinian father and from high school classes, so I’m no expert.  But the word “fitting” and the phrase “greatest culinary achievement” don’t feel like things that someone with English as a second language would be likely to use.  Also, when I ask for the Spanish term for headstone, Google provides, ” lápida mortuoria” or mortuary stone.  So it may be that someone from a Spanish-speaking background would think of a “mortuary stone” rather than a “headstone.”  And the phrase “which was saying something” is a colloquialism (a phrase used in informal language) that might be less likely for someone with English as a second language to use.  Again, I’m no expert, but as I read, the dialogue and the narration don’t feel like they’re coming from the same character.  Doing research by talking to/recording people with backgrounds similar to Maria, finding memoirs by people with similar backgrounds, or watching videos with such people could be very helpful in creating a strong, consistent voice for this character.

The second area I think could be improved is the plot.  For me, an experienced reader of horror, thrillers, and mystery, the plot is too familiar and lacks twists or surprises.  I enjoy the idea that Maria is putting poison into her salsa, but in a mild way.  I’m hoping for that to be the first step in a plot that goes on to twist and turn.  The story provides a series of clues that something is dangerous about the salsa, so when I learn that Maria is against guns and her customer is pro-gun, it’s easy to conclude that the salsa is poisoned.  It seems convenient (meaning manipulated by the author) that the person in charge of food for the NRA’s annual convention knows Maria and her salsa and hires her to make it for the meeting.  The last section of the story, from the time the man thanks Maria to the end, doesn’t really add anything for me, because it’s revealing things I already know.

I think there are two ways you can think about the plot weakness.  One is that there is no struggle, when a plot generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal.  Maria just has to make the salsa, something she’s done many times, and hand it to the man.  Putting in the poison doesn’t cause her any trouble.  Since this is just a little longer than a flash piece and thus may imply sections of the story that aren’t actually present, the struggle could potentially be implied.  But there is no implication that Maria had to struggle to befriend the man or get his business.  The man seems to think he’s Maria’s friend.  And there’s no sense that Maria had to struggle to get the NRA convention to come to her town.  So the story seems to be that the job to provide food to the NRA fell into Maria’s lap, and she made the poisoned salsa and handed it over.  No struggle.  So one way to address this plot weakness would be to add struggle.

Another way to think about the plot weakness is that Maria’s plan goes according to plan.  Whenever a protagonist has a plan, it should never go according to plan.  There could be unexpected roadblocks or unintended consequences.  I’m a big fan of unintended consequences.  They can have a huge impact on readers.  For example, the story reveals that the man was expecting 50 jars of salsa, and Maria, in her enthusiasm, has made 100.  Assuming 50 will be sufficient for the NRA meeting, what will be done with the other 50?  Might the man give some to his wife to feed to his family?  Might she give some to her friends?  And who is going to be at the NRA annual convention?  I took a quick look online and found this description of the NRA barbecue, an event likely to involve salsa:  “an evening full of friends, family, firearms, and fundraising.”  It sounds like children would be present.  I think this could be a powerful unintended consequence of Maria’s plan.  She imagines killing adults, but she ends up killing many children as well.  She might get a call from the man as people are dying, or she might see the report on television.  I think that could reveal a more complex truth and could provide a twist at the end that would carry strong emotion.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed the focus, clarity, concision, and vivid details in the story.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 2019, Short Story

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

Brought Near To Beast by Gregor Hartmann

My interest was piqued by “Brought Near to Beast” this month because of its smooth take on a set of classic centre-of-genre tropes—near-alien overclasses, dinosaurs, a researcher protagonist—one which brings a seeping political consciousness into play. However, the connections between those ideas felt, to this reader, frequently a little jerky; they didn’t always add up. So this month, I’d like to talk about continuity—how the elements of our stories connect—and what we communicate with the absences in our narratives.

“Brought Near to Beast” is a fun read: reasonably light and quick, well-focused, and with enough sense of a wider world and wider issues to feel substantial. Its clear, tidy prose foregrounds the story well, and sparks here and there with a few bright, vivid metaphors—I liked “short sullen grass” especially. The question of Suu’s real motives builds a legitimately frightening threat to combat and a sense of the overall stakes involved, and alongside Peng’s slow realization of what he might be enabling, it’s compelling enough to drive the piece.

What I’d suggest for “Brought Near to Beast”, though, is largely about connections: giving some stronger thought to how the various ideas in this story interact with and feed one another—or where they don’t.

The major issue I had with the piece was the rather short half-life of its ideas: a motivation—like the potential culling of Sapiens on the horizon—appears to drive the action of one particular scene, but after that? It near-disappears into another motivation, and isn’t picked back up. Even with Peng’s me-first attitude, there isn’t a flicker of that consideration in play when the assassination attempt goes down, and those disconnections dent the realism of Peng’s psychology and the world in general.

Likewise, the question of Peng’s relationship with the mammoths doesn’t surface between the first page and the last, and by then, it feels rather tangential. What readers have been told is important here, told is the driving issue for Peng and Bataar, has moved sufficiently by the last paragraphs that I’m unsure the ending—while basically heartwarming—still actually addresses the problem the story has set. Peng’s final choice—to stay with Bataar and build a better rapport with the herd—feels abrupt and, given how strongly his ambitions for a different, networked life have been built up just paragraphs before, somewhat counterintuitive.

That sense of disconnect shows up in the characterization as well. Peng’s ineffectual tendencies and little jealousies don’t always mesh with his claimed ambitions: he wants to cozy up to a ChoRen for professional advancement, but all he knows about his networking targets seems to come from TV shows and propaganda—and he’s ignoring a lot of the social cues Suu and the other ChoRen are throwing his way instead of using them. It’s pretty plain he’s not going to achieve his goal, even if he takes credit for saving Suu; Suu uses people as props. He has not conducted himself like someone who would care enough to issue Peng the kind of reward he’s fishing for.

In short, what I’m noticing here are absences: missing reactions, missing connections, and missing facts which, through the holes they leave, reshape the narrative in ways I’m not sure are precisely intended.

What we put on the page or imply conveys information to readers, but our absences convey information too. Readers infer deliberation out of what’s not happened, not mentioned, and how it juxtaposes with what was and has. Here, those collisions are conveying that Peng is a bad scientist, without potentially meaning to say that thing; they’re conveying that he’s somewhat sociopathic, given the casualness with which he takes learning that Bataar’s a murderer (I mean, doesn’t everyone who kills someone think they deserved it on some level?) and his absolute lack of regard for every other Sap in the world. Peng is missing his society—family, friends, associates, people to care about who aren’t Bataar—but readers fill in that he would have one, and by disregarding it, by throwing it under the bus, Peng’s simply an incredibly ethically and emotionally broken person, insecure and a bit of a fool.

There are a few strategies for finding what conclusions the absences in our narratives are feeding—for making sure the signal we’re conveying is as clean as possible. This is one of the places where critiques are possibly one’s first line of defense; there’s not much substitute for seeing how a character’s reading to other sets of eyes. But to help ensure the blanks we leave are pointing the ways we want them, it’s worthwhile to read a drafted piece with attention to just one character arc: make notes on everything that’s said about that person and deliberately reconstruct the footprint they’re leaving.

From the other side, if we can establish a cohesive idea of what each character wants and how each line they speak, silence they extend, or action they take links back to that core idea, we can clear the noise or contradiction out of that character’s expression.

This is careful and somewhat grinding work, but it’s worthwhile to make sure we’re communicating signal, not noise. That importance struck me while wondering why Suu and the other ChoRen’s dialogue is so choppy. The overclock explanation comes a bit late, and from a linguistic standpoint—dependent on how the SophX implants are supposed to work—either he’s going to think in complete sentences anyway, or in a more abstract form that wouldn’t necessitate dropping particles in his audible speech. Particle drop is a syntactic translation question or a marker of linguistic play, not one of resource management.

The impression I was left with was that Suu’s speech patterns have ended up quite close to the stereotype of an Asian person speaking broken English, in a story where Chinese sociopolitical concepts are centred, where the characters are Asian and Mongolian—and the protagonist is insecure, social-climbing, bootlicking, and jealous.

A picture is eventually painted. A conclusion’s being led to by those narrative facts.

We’ve talked a lot in previous months about making sure your choices are choices, not accidents, and that’s a reference that’s going to be inevitably read as an authorial choice on how to depict others. Just as Peng’s shortcuts are communicating—and it’s up to us as writers to know what’s being communicated—the characterization choices in “Brought Near to Beast” are too, and I’d suggest they’re worth reexamining.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award July 2019, Science Fiction

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

Poison Wind-Chapter 1 by J. Kyle Kelsey

I’m going to start this Editor’s Choice with a piece of somewhat wicked advice.

You’re in one of the best of all the writing stages: the Thinking Up All Kinds of Cool Stuff stage. It’s wonderful. It’s a blast. Whatever you come up with is great. It’s pure fun.

Don’t stop.

The time to revise is later. Just let the cool stuff flow. Don’t worry about rules or continuity or anything else. This is first draft. The only rule is to do whatever gets the words down on that page. You can worry about all the other stuff later.

Radical, right? But the actual worst thing you can do to a draft that’s humming along is try to apply your editorial brain. If you get stuck or if you really feel it’s stopped making sense, by all means regroup. Run a rules check. Do some rethinking, even rewriting.

But not until then.

Now that I hope I’ve made that clear, here are some thoughts and questions. Don’t act on them now unless they help move the draft forward. Put them aside, save them for the revision stage. Most likely the specific words I’m citing will have changed, but the general point should still apply.

The first thing to think about in revision is the structure of the story, the way the scenes follow one another, the pacing. Does the story move forward consistently? Do the slow parts come when we need a breather? Do the fast parts zoom along? Does every scene absolutely need to be there? Is there anything missing?

Obviously there’s no way to be sure of any of this with just a short chapter to go by, but these are the sorts of questions to ask when it’s time to revise. There are a couple of indicators in the opening chapter, some tricks of technique that may need rethinking. One is a tendency to say the same thing over and over in slightly different ways.

Repetition is a well-known rhetorical device, but like all such devices, a little goes a long way. This paragraph, for example.

It wasn’t a sacred day, or a fasting day, or even a bank holiday. It was a boring November day. He sat is in his dull flat in dreary East Ham. The weather wasn’t of note. Clouds covering everything in gray monotony, like Ajeet’s unwashed clothes blanketed the floor of their shared flat. It seemed like the right day. He remembered that from an American movie, “fire them on Friday”, something like that. He was dying to break the tedium. His crew wouldn’t activate for another two days. He could stream his shows, but it all seemed boring now. Nothing compared to fighting evil with his crew.

On the one hand, the repetition of day has a nice ring to it, kind of Dickensian. It sets a tone. On the other, as the paragraph lengthens, the effect starts to weaken. The progression of thoughts is a bit jumbled. Ideas pop in and then out and then back again.

That is fine in a first draft. Get it all down, get the chapter out the door. But in revision, it’s time to line up the ideas and images and get them moving clearly and coherently, in logical order. If ideas or images repeat, pick the one that works best in context. Save the others for another occasion.

Revision is the time to make sure all the words work the way they’re intended to. Sometimes when we’re writing in the white heat of first draft, we can get ourselves tangled up. We know what we mean, but readers may not.

This is particularly true in science fiction. Some terms are unique to the genre. Some are invented on the spot, or reinvented to fit the world of the story. A passage like this one

Didn’t hurt that they made a good living off scavenging bit wreckage after his crew would detonate data cores. In two days they would onramp a massive code injection.

makes sense to the characters, but especially at the very beginning, it may need some clarification for the reader. It doesn’t need to be a big chunk of exposition, but it might help to think about how to make these concepts clearer. A quick phrase to help clarify and/or explain. Or maybe opening up the sentences, adding a little more, letting the reader see what the terms mean.

Figurative language is a nice way to make a scene or an idea pop, but watch that, too. It needs to be straight on point; to be exactly right. Otherwise it can push the reader out of the moment.

The traditions of his parents and grandparents faith ran through their hearts as deep as ravines

is trying hard to convey the depth of his family’s faith, but ravines might not be quite the right word. As a reader in the US, I see a ravine as a kind of moderate slash in the landscape, deeper and larger than a gully but not quite as spectacular as a canyon. It’s not terribly impressive on a global scale, and I’m not sure about associating it with religious faith.

What other image might resonate here? Something a reader might recognize from a religious text? An image of a sacred place? What about tying it in with the anatomical and psychological aspects of the human heart?

Or, for that matter, just letting the idea shine through on its own. Similes and metaphors can enhance the story, but they can also get in the way. Sometimes it’s more effective to just state the idea plainly, without embellishment.

The question to ask here is, “Am I interrupting the flow? Did I just distract the reader? Did I bump her out of the story?”

This applies to the prose in general as well as to rhetorical flourishes. Make sure all the words are the right words. As Mark Twain famously said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

Here are a couple of examples of words or phrases that might bear some rethinking:

 “Alright. I’ll be there,” he acted in a hurry.

I’m not sure what “acted” means here. It’s not a “said” word. Is he pretending? Acting in the theatrical sense?

The music she liked was chaotic and atmospheric. A reflection of herself in his eyes.

The second sentence is a bit confusing. Is she reflecting herself? Is he seeing her reflected? What does it mean? Can you phrase it more clearly and concisely?

And finally, be particularly careful about pronouns. There’s a tendency to use “he” as a shorthand for the viewpoint character, which gets confusing when he’s interacting with another male character. The reader has to stop and disentangle the pronouns, and try to figure out which he is which. Sometimes it’s best to just name them. My personal rule is to signal a change with the character’s name (or more rarely, some other indicator—the character’s rank or relationship; but I try to be really sparing with that), then “he” is that character until I change the name. No name, no change.

Basically, in revision, look out for anything that makes the reader stop and go, “Whut?” The goal is to keep the story moving, and to keep the reader well and thoroughly engaged. If she does stop to notice what you’re doing, it should be brief and it should be carefully calibrated. Every word earns it keep, and every image is exactly the right one for that particular point in the story.

But again, in the first draft, don’t worry about any of this. Just write. And have fun. That’s what it’s all about.

–Judith Tarr