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

Editor’s Choice Award

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.

The 10,000 Year Civil War by Christopher Halk

There’s a tremendous lot of story-stuff going on in this submission. It’s very ambitious, and it has some interesting bits of worldbuilding—the Shades and their colors in particular.

What drew me to select the chapter as an Editor’s Choice was the author’s note about viewpoint. Point of view is one of the most important elements of any work of fiction. Who is telling the story? How are they telling it? Where are they standing, what are they feeling, how are they reacting, how are they interacting with other characters?

Sometimes authors get tangled up in the received wisdom about viewpoint.

Only one point of view per paragraph/scene/chapter.

Never change point of view in a sentence/paragraph/scene.

“Head-hopping” is Bad, Do Not Do.

Always be clear about your viewpoint—tag frequently with words like thought, wondered, and the many variations of looked and saw.

The thing about the rules of writing is that they’re really the Pirates’ Code. Just…guidelines. They exist as guides for writers who are learning their craft. If you follow the rules, you stand a slightly better chance of writing clearly and avoiding confusion.

But—and this is a really big BUT—if you know and understand why the rules exist and what sorts of problems they’re intended to prevent, you can break them. You can have two different viewpoints in the same sentence, you can write an entire scene without ever once having your character look or think or wonder, you can challenge the reader to figure out what you really mean without spelling it out.

If you know what you’re doing. And if you have the skill and craft to pull it off.

And that’s why writing is hard.

The chapter we have here is struggling with the concept of point of view. Part of what’s going on is a tendency to lose focus from sentence to sentence. Paragraphs are packed full of narrative detail, chunks of exposition and large amounts of action crammed into a small space. The line of the story tends to get lost.

Breaking up the action will help, as will cutting way down on the repetition of words and phrases. Pick one key action per paragraph, and one key detail from the background, and see if that helps open up the narrative. It may also make it easier to figure out which character is most effectively positioned to tell that part of the story.

It doesn’t have to be one single character. There are valid narrative reasons to have several viewpoints—Alexander, his wife, the page. Even a demon, for extra points, though again, that requires careful attention to detail. Different “camera angles” provide different insights into what’s going on, and allow us to see different parts of the action.

I think one of the problems here is the tendency to fix on the “view” part of viewpoint. The word “look” is a frequent flier, as are a number of its synonyms, with the occasional variation of “thought” or “wondered.” Note how often these words appear, and think about whether it’s really important to the story, right there and then, for the characters to be doing this particular thing. How else can the reader get a sense of what’s going on? In what other ways can the viewpoint character show that he or she is the one who’s telling us the story?

Think about what he or she can see from where they’re standing. How do they feel about it? What particular words might they use, that tell us who they are and how they relate to the other characters? What other things can they do besides look or watch or see? Do we need to be told they’re doing this, or can we just see what they see?

For the time being I think the “one viewpoint per paragraph” rule might be worth following, to keep things simple. There’s a lot of work to do on focus, on cramming fewer events and details into each paragraph, and on writing action scenes with active words and phrases. Emotions need work as well—more direct experience and less passive voice; make sure to show how the character feels from the inside, rather than telling us that the emotion is felt. The arc of emotion should be smoother, with each action at the right level of intensity.

This is a good example of what tends to happen in the draft:

They screamed in agony, shake their heads in disbelief, and then acquiesce to extinction.

There’s the high note of the agonized scream, dropping steeply down to the headshake, then the passive polysyllables of acquiesce to extinction (with bonus slippage of verb tense). If each phrase has the same general level of diction, the whole becomes much stronger. Something like: “They screamed in agony, tossed their heads in disbelief, then yielded to death.” Not my finest attempt at prose, there, but notice how the words fit together. They’re all short, clear, straightforward, and they take their inspiration from the tone and diction of the opening phrase.

Once the prose is more tightly focused, it may be easier to see how viewpoint works. It’s not the explicit statement that does it—he looked, she watched, they saw—but the way it’s said. The angle from which the character sees each event. The words that show how the character feels about it.

Different words convey different emotions. “She danced” and “she capered” describe approximately the same movement, but the first conveys grace and joy whereas the second has more of a comical aspect. When a character is observing another character, how they relate to that character can tell us a lot: “Her beloved sprang through the gate with sword in hand” versus “the monster lurched into the courtyard with fangs bared.” We don’t need to be told “She looked at him” if it’s clear she’s our viewpoint; we just need to know what he does, as she sees it.

It’s all about trust: trusting one’s craft and trusting one’s reader. Learning how to use just the right words to convey just the right details. Keeping track of who a character is, how they think and feel, and what they can see (and hear and smell and taste) from where they’re standing (or sitting or lying). Living inside the character’s head, experiencing the story as they experience it, and then conveying that experience in a few carefully chosen, precisely appropriate words and phrases.

That’s what viewpoint is. Not just camera angle but the whole spectrum of emotion, action, perception, as experienced by a particular character.

It’s quite possible to shift from one character to another, and if the writer is skillful enough, that shift can be clear from the way the angle changes. A different choice of words, a new take on what’s happening. A sense that this is inevitable; that we have to change viewpoints in order get the most out of this particular part of the story.

In sum, and in general, I’d suggest trying to do more with less in this chapter. Pare down the action, focus on fewer details, and move away from passive voice to more active constructions. Removing the iterations of look will help, as will thinking in a more focused way about how the characters are perceiving what’s happening around and to them. That will make the story stronger and let the reader live it along with the characters.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Tomorrow’s Place by Jim McDougall

I like the concept of this story. Magical artifacts are always fun, and when they come from mysterious junk shops, that’s even better. I also appreciate the punch line. “Dead right,” indeed.

I have a couple of suggestions for the next round of revisions.

First, the character arc could be smoother and more consistent. The story opens with Lucy as the skeptic, bored and out of sorts and referring to the contents of the shop as “garbage.” It’s Jack who’s the believer.

After this beginning, the reader expects Lucy to keep on being a hard sell. But as soon as Jack buys the radio, suddenly she’s fine with listening to it. We need to see how she gets to this point. For example, when she agrees with Jack, she might be less willing; she may say “Sure,” but without enthusiasm. She’s just saying it to maintain family harmony.

There’s another abrupt shift once Jack turns the radio on. She immediately realizes what it’s doing, and suddenly she’s wildly enthusiastic about it. Now it’s Jack who’s the skeptic, and he’s both rude and insulting—until the station starts playing the disaster at the factory. Then he’s the believer again, so much so that he insists on physically investigating; and now it’s Lucy who’s the skeptic again, so much so that she stomps off and leaves him to it.

In revision I’d suggest some careful rethinking of the characters’ reactions and their interactions. Make sure the shifts from skeptic to believer and vice versa progress logically. Make it a little clearer in the beginning that in spite of Lucy’s tiredness and her lack of patience with Jack’s fascination with old junk, she’s the imaginative one.

Maybe he makes it clear that he’s just looking for a cheap radio, and she makes a joke about “If it’s that old, it must be magic.” Then when she’s proved right, Jack’s nastiness makes more sense. Jack doesn’t like to be wrong.

Likewise, when Jack shifts toward acceptance of the truth, give it a little more space. Show how he comes around to it. Does he think to apologize to Lucy for doubting her? If he doesn’t, would Lucy call him on it? Or does she stay on the moral high ground?

None of this needs to take up a lot of story space. The right line or two in the right place will do it.

The other suggestion I would make is to rethink the structure of the ending. The shift of scene from Lucy abandoning Jack to Lucy dreaming about the factory’s collapse is confusing on two fronts. First, it’s not clear that it’s a dream, until we’re told in so many words.

Second, would Lucy really do that? She’s the one who believes wholeheartedly in the radio’s predictive powers. If it’s broadcasting a disaster, does it make sense for her to go away and leave Jack? If she really is that pissed off at his general assholery, wouldn’t she get all or partway home and then turn back because he might be in danger? Would she leave him like that, ignore his absence, and go calmly to sleep, considering what the radio predicted?

Much of the dream sequence would work if she were stomping along in a temper rather than lying in bed asleep. She could hallucinate the walls falling, and hear Jack’s voice—then turn and run back, praying she isn’t too late.

That would close the gap of several hours between her dumping Jack and her waking up from the dream. Where is Jack during those hours? Why didn’t he just make the call and then come home? Would he stay around the factory if he knows it’s going to come down?

There’s also the question of how long the interval is between the radio’s prediction and the event it predicts. The baseball game happens 24 hours later. The factory seems to collapse much sooner. Is there any particular logic in play here? If so, how do Jack and Lucy figure it out?

One final note: Think about the emotional temperature of the ending. Make sure it’s high enough. “It was time to look for Jack” needs to be stronger, more urgent, less passive. Let us feel the tension. Lucy’s “flash of cold understanding and hot grief” is lovely—that’s what we want to feel in the whole scene. Then the punch line truly is a blow to our emotional center.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Snake Head by C.K. Attner

“Snake Head” drew me in this month with its examination of violence and what makes strength in an eerie, evocative, brutal little world. It draws a swift, sympathetic picture through implication, but doesn’t quite resolve in the final paragraphs—and the author’s notes aren’t sure about where to take the story next. So this month, I’d like to discuss building our capacity to figure out why a piece isn’t quite landing right: one way to diagnose which direction to move with a draft where it’s unclear what isn’t working.

The standout feature of “Snake Head” is definitely the atmosphere: Huey’s narrative arc isn’t precisely a new one, but the tiny universe he’s trying to escape drips and molders and curls around the edges, bolstered by the persistent use of physical, bodily metaphors: water that “smells like armpit”, the sun biting down. The snakeskin peeling like sunburn is palpable in my fingertips. “Muscles cocked” is just up to the line of potentially overdone, but in context, it really works: a body like a weapon. The effect is that the entire seaside world of “Snake Head” feels like a human body: humid and vulnerable, breakable down to parts, a site for hurt.

That reinforces the slow accretion of details and incidents that build up to the choice Huey makes—and fails. There’s a sense in which the quiet of this story both underscores and balances out, at the same time, its brutality. Taken together, Able’s winced-away-from sexual coercion, Uncle Pete’s violent wolverine stories, and parents who keep having children just because slaves are too much trouble—because slaves fight back—paint a horrifying picture. But the way that information is dripped out even over a rather short piece, the emotional quiet with which Huey conveys it, help keep that brutality from being a full-on slap into readers’ faces (or at least, it did for this reader).

There’s a concern in the author’s notes about present tense, but for me, that choice also works well. Tense and person choices are fundamentally, when we break them down, about whether the basic effects and associations readers have with that tense work with or against the kind of story we’re trying to tell. One of the big pluses of present tense can be a sense of immediacy and vividness; “Snake Head” capitalizes on that feeling with its imagery, its slightly shocky emotional tone, and centering around a question of ethical choice—what will Huey do in this moment? That means the present tense is working with the other elements of the story, not against them: what it brings to the table resonates with, backs up, and strengthens what other aspects of craft are trying to create.

The key here is how these elements reinforce each other: the metaphor set in agreement with the emotional tone and thematics, the narrative style in agreement with the core question about ethics and kindness and power, the tense agreeing with the tone. All those points of craft, every choice that was made about them, are pulling as a team toward specific goals.

Where “Snake Head” isn’t firing on all cylinders yet, I think—and this is the diagnostic!—is where elements aren’t pulling with that team, or are pulling away from it, diverting focus.

There’s a small confusion as to the supernatural element—or lack thereof—in “Snake Head”: if there’s a power in Fayt’s gaze or if he’s functionally just the first basically kind person Hugh’s ever met, and Hugh’s desperation to know why all the violence of his family doesn’t seem to touch this man is less about the supernatural than emotional strength and different systems of power. I think it’s not precisely a weakness to have that slightly unclear, but it’s enough of a small confusion to help create a split in the story’s focus.

That split grows into an open question of what “Snake Head” is centred on: whether it’s the idea of the snake head—something that can still poison even dead, a relic of violence, violence’s reach—or the image of the gaze, of the idea of being seen, the eye. Those ideas aren’t exactly in competition, but they’re the elements that I think aren’t yet working in tandem in the ways the present tense does with the imagery and thematics. They fork instead, and as I reader, I’m not sure which one is the one to put weight on, to make the central image in my head.

That’s why the last lines fall flat for me. It ends on the eye, but I’m not sure “Snake Head” was built on the eye. I’m told, as a reader, this was the way to go, which makes me wonder if the early symbol—prompted by the title!—was the wrong thing to centre.

I think it’s thoroughly repairable, and probably without too much rewriting: the only thing that needs doing is to find a way to make the central image of “Snake Head” pull together with all the other elements of craft—unify it, and unify the story with it. It’s possible to not choose one or the other, but both, here: there’s already the ghost of a link between the snake heads—”lizard eyes”—and the silver-gold eyes of the Geemoh people, and that might work too, because it finds a way to get both those elements back on the team.

But largely this is a question of decision-making: sifting through what the early draft has to find what the finished draft wants to say, and how. It’s the diagnostic process—asking people for eyes, yes, but also charting which bundles of ideas go in the same direction—that can help identify that message, and the ways to get it out that are already building themselves within the story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Way Of Lightning And Fire by J. S. Bradley

 

I’m doing something a bit different with this Editor’s Choice. After I selected it, the author reached out to let me know he had completely rewritten the piece. The revision is here.

That’s the one I’m going to focus on, and that’s the source of the quotations below, though my review (because of the way the system is set up) is tied to the original version.

The revision does one major structural thing I would have recommended if I’d only had the first version to work with: it replaces summary and synopsis (what the author in his note calls “narrative”) with a trio of dramatized scenes. This is a wise decision. It tightens the focus of the story and brings its events and characters to life.

I have questions about the ordering of the scenes in the revision: chronologically, they’re presented as 1 – 3 – 2. We experience the revelation of Milica’s fate along with Kresnik, then we circle back around to his final moments with her before he went away to become his competent and confident adult self. The last line seems meant to pierce us with its irony.

It does, to a degree, but I need more clarity as to what happens when, and why it’s being told in that particular order. Some connection, a segue from the one scene to the next—perhaps a line or phrase that shifts Kresnik from his adult self back to his childhood.

It might help also to have a bit at the beginning of the middle/adult scene which clarifies why he’s come back—something to suggest that there’s more going on in Kresnik’s mind and memory than we’re initially told. At that point in the story we don’t know about that night in the barn, but Kresnik does. If there’s a hint of it in the early part of the scene, we may not pick up on it when we encounter it, but it will resonate when we have the full context.

It’s certainly a powerful story, and the revised version twists the knife in multiple ways: Kresnik’s innocence in the beginning, his mature self facing the consequences of what happened on that terrible day, and the interaction with his sister that shapes and colors his reactions—and ours—to both. Because it’s so powerful, and because the story is so short, the prose needs to be finely tuned and highly polished. It wants to be; it tries for unusual effects and strong images. In both the original and the revised version, it’s not quite there.

One suggestion I would make would be to think about the prevalence of rhetorical questions. It’s part of Kresnik’s thought process, his internal monologue.

What in all of creation was going on?

How could she leave him now?

He’d never make it that far though.  Would he?  Was it stupid to leave?  What if he regretted it?  What if he stayed, and Milica was hurt?  What if she was killed?   

Is it really necessary for him to ask these questions? Does the rest of the narrative convey his thoughts and feelings clearly enough? If not, are there other, more varied, and perhaps more concise ways to do it?

(Sidebar: I’m not an advocate of the death penalty for inserting two spaces after a period or full stop, but it’s gone rather firmly out of fashion. One space is the general rule in this decadent age.)

I’d further suggest paying very close attention to the nuances of words and phrases, and making sure they mean exactly what they need to mean in context. Watch for awkward phrasing, and look out for echoes and repetitions, for slack constructions and tautologies. Every word, every phrase should earn its place in the text, and every one should be just the right one.

For example,

a scowl dug trenches along the corners of the Marm’s thin lips

is vivid and unusual, but a scowl happens in the upper part of the face, the forehead, the eyebrows, and to an extent the eyes. By the time it gets down to the lips it’s a grimace. The choice of words is not quite as precise as it might be, while at the same time the level of detail, the digging of trenches, slows down the movement of the story and focuses it on the image rather than on what’s happening in the scene.

The meanings of words tend to slip, and images get confused or confusing:

A heartbeat contracted within his ear canals

It’s the heart that contracts, rather than its beat, and the heart is located in the chest, not in the ears.

At the corners of her eyes the crevices carved deeper in

It’s not clear what “the crevices” are, or what carves them, or what they signify.

And in the same sentence,

the eyes of his classmates showing an assortment of positions on the spectrum between boredom and interest

mixes the metaphor of eyes, emotions, and positions; it might be simpler and stronger just to say something like, “His classmates’ eyes ran the spectrum from boredom to interest.” Fewer words, more precision. Less confusion of meaning and image.

Sometimes images could be toned down, as well.

The Marm’s mouth fell open and her eyelids shot up, exposing the full circles of her dusky irises.  The tendons of her neck jutted outward like string beneath parchment. 

There’s so much going on here, so many disparate actions, so many similes and metaphors, that the reader loses the thread of the narrative. Think about choosing one of these images, the one that most clearly conveys the emotional impact of the moment, and leaving the rest to implication. If it’s the right image, the reader will pick up the rest.

One last note: the characters SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS. The usual convention for that level of emphasis is the use of italics. Even those are best used sparingly and may not be needed at all.

In general, especially in a story that relies so heavily on figurative language and stylistic flourishes, it can be useful to apply the principle of Less is More. Let the choice of words and the structure of sentences provide the emphasis, assisted by judicious bits of stage business. The story is strong and the characters are memorable. With some work and attention, the prose will take care of the rest.

–Judith Tarr