Editor’s Choice Award December 2018, Horror

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

Stonoshki by Rayne Hall

When I get to the millipede in the third paragraph, and Ahren throws it away and it seems to come back, I’m hooked.   That creates a good mystery–is there something supernatural about the millipedes?–and makes me want to keep reading.  The story also has some nice description of the millipedes.  I can see them vividly, and that helps to make the situation feel immediate and real.  The strange behavior of the millipedes (and centipedes) exists within a fairly normal-seeming context, with the characters and their interactions feeling pretty believable.  That helps the bugs to stand out and makes the Ahren’s situation easy to relate to.  These elements work well to keep me engaged until the end.

That said, once I get to the ending, I’m very disappointed.  By raising the question of whether the bugs are supernatural or not, the story promises me some sort of answer or resolution to this mystery.  Yet no answer is provided.

Instead, the story introduces, right before the end, the discovery of a new lethal centipede species.  Rather than resolving a mystery about millipedes, the story provides information about centipedes.  Rather than resolving the question of the supernatural, the story introduces a scientific discovery.  The story is kind of pulling a bait and switch on us, promising one thing and providing another.  This leaves the story feeling unfocused and the ending feeling unsatisfying.

In addition to shifting its focus, the ending also lacks a strong causal chain.  The bugs seem to behave in a fairly consistent way through most of the story, and then all of a sudden at the end they attack in a swarm.  Why?  Without a why, or even the hint of a why, the bugs seem to attack at the end because the author made them.  That’s not satisfying either.  The reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, through a chain of cause and effect.  Otherwise, it’s impossible to believe in the story.  Without a why, it’s also hard to make any meaning out of the story.

My suggestion would be to decide what you want to promise readers, and then try to fulfill that promise (in an unexpected way, so readers are surprised but also satisfied).  If the story is promising an answer to the question of possibly supernatural millipedes, then provide that.  And if the situation is going to get much worse (which is exciting), then there needs to be a cause for that.  A why.

So why is Ahren plagued by these bugs, and why does the problem get worse?  Does Ahren himself do something to create and worsen the problem?  Or does Boyana or Willard create this problem for some ulterior motive?  Or does the house hold some secret that causes the problem?

Ahren is attracted to Boyana, despite being engaged to Florrie.  I think the story could develop this more to answer some of these questions.  Perhaps Florrie insists on coming for his birthday, and Ahren gets frustrated trying to get rid of all the millipedes before she arrives.  She comes, and we could feel a lot of suspense as we anticipate an appearance by the millipedes.  But they don’t come.  When Florrie takes a bath in the new bathtub Ahren has put in, a millipede crawls onto her.  She gets upset and tells Ahren she won’t come back until he’s gotten rid of all of them and replaced the bathtub.  Ahren gets more angry.  As he’s pulling out the bathtub, he finds dampness and more millipedes below.  He decides he’s sick of doing everything Florrie wants; he’s going to put in a Bulgarian-style shower, and if she doesn’t like it, maybe he’ll end up with Boyana instead.  He tells Florrie everything is fixed but he won’t send any photos; it’s a surprise.  He stops cleaning up the millipedes.

As this plot heads to some horrific climax (I’m hoping Ahren ends up taking a millipede shower), I think you can see that it has a stronger causal chain.  Ahren starts the story catering to Florrie’s desires, and as she’s not satisfied with his efforts, he becomes frustrated and starts to do unwise things, which have the unintended consequence of worsening the millipede problem.  Unintended consequences are one great way of escalating a situation.

One might see the millipedes, in this sort of scenario, as symbols of his discontent with his life, and as the relationship problems grow, the millipedes become more numerous.

This story has some really nice elements.  If the promise better aligns with what is delivered, and the causal chain is strengthened, it will be quite involving and powerful.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2018, Science Fiction

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

Rookie Chapter 1 & 2 by Saffron Bryant

I have a soft spot for hardscrabble planetary SF, and I’m intrigued by the author’s note. The novel is finished and published, but it seems to be “lacking some shine.” It takes courage to revisit a published work and want to make it better.

As I read the opening chapters, I noted some prose habits that might be worth addressing. Fortunately the fixes are fairly straightforward. It’s mostly a matter of recognizing that these things are happening, and adding that extra layer of tightening and polish.

Conjunction splices. These are like comma splices in that they run separate clauses together, but they disguise themselves with the conjunctions and and but. For example:

Oppressive heat surrounded her and it felt as though she spent every day drenched in sweat. Almost immediately we also see That was the problem with deserts; too hot to breathe and sand that found its way into everything.

What this does is level out the emphases: everything has the same emotional temperature. We lose the distinction between characters and concepts, or between the abstract and the concrete. Consider this example:

He knelt in front of a sand-buggy and a streak of grease stained his right cheek.

Two different things are happening, but they’re lined up as if they were in the same category of action. The character kneeling and the grease staining carry equal weight.

I would suggest is breaking up sentences that are spliced with and and but. It can be as simple as getting rid of the conjunction and creating two sentences: He knelt in front of a sand-buggy. A streak of grease stained his right cheek. If the result starts to get choppy, clauses can connect with semicolons and colons, or you can even cut details that aren’t directly relevant.

I noted quite a bit of repetitive internal monologue. Nova spends most of these chapters inside her head, thinking, feeling, remembering, opining, debating. She goes over the same thoughts and reminiscences within single paragraphs but also through the larger narrative: thoughts about where she comes from, what she’s doing here, how gross her boss is and how she feels about Axel and how she needs to make rent. Paring away the repetitions and leaving one of them in just the right place will help with both the pacing and the prose.

The same applies to dialogue. In the scenes with Koba and Axel, the conversation cycles through the same ideas and arguments. They’ll say something once, then go over it again: Koba can’t do that, Koba is doing that, he has to pay her, she has to make rent, Koba can’t do that, he won’t pay her, he has to pay her, she has to make rent. Cutting the conversation by half or two-thirds, zeroing in on the key ideas and pruning the internal monologue when it repeats information we’ve already seen, will speed up the narrative.

It is true that, if used very sparingly, this kind of recursive dialogue can work. It has to be be spot on, playing continually and slightly varied riffs on the same idea, so that we get the full effect of the viewpoint character’s frustration while also feeling that the story is moving forward.

Within internal monologue and external dialogue, there is a tendency to insert digressions, mostly background and description, which repeat from scene to scene as well as within scenes. For example:

Nova stood just inside the door and fidgeted. The less time she wasted standing in Koba’s office the better; she needed to get back to her ship and search for more Bounty Hunter jobs. She had to get out there and start making a name for herself—she hadn’t left Tabryn with her very own space ship just so she could be a mechanic for the rest of her life. She wanted to travel, explore things. And one day, maybe, she’d be accepted into the legendary Bounty Hunter guild: The Jagged Maw. But right now that was a pipe-dream because you had to do something really special to get noticed by The Jagged Maw, and fixing broken-down spaceships wasn’t it.

She cleared her throat.

We’re in the middle of a tense scene. Nova is about to beard her boss in his den. The story stops for a chunk of backstory. Several sentences later, it starts again. In the meantime, the tension has snapped—and Nova has told the reader in so many words that the scene is a waste of time.

Readers are tough customers. They don’t cut a lot of slack, particularly at the beginning of a book. When they’re told the scene they’re about to read is not important (even if in fact it is), they may skip to the next scene. If they find themselves skimming too often, they’ll put the book aside and move on to something else.

To keep the reader reading, information should flow smoothly. It can slow down in between action scenes or scenes high in emotional tension, providing a breathing space and allowing room to fill in background and exposition. A tense scene needs to be tightly focused, moving along briskly from action to reaction, with crisp, concise dialogue and a nice snap at the beginning as well as the end.

Any details that appear here should be few, carefully chosen, and directly relevant to the scene. Active verbs and positive phrasing are key.

It’s particularly important to avoid negatives and demurrals: to say what something is rather than what it isn’t, to make it clear to the reader that this scene is worth her time, and to draw her along from line to line and paragraph to paragraph to paragraph without interrupting the flow with nonessential information. In short: to keep her turning the pages. If she stops, if she’s distracted, she may not be able to get back on track.

My personal checklist for details, especially at the beginning of a novel, goes like this:

Do we absolutely need to know this right here and now?

Can the reader make sense of the story without it?

Can this particular information wait for a later scene?

Does the reader need all of this information? What can I leave out? What particular detail or small handful of details can I provide that will allow the reader to pick up on the rest?

Have I already conveyed this information? Does the reader need to be reminded?

How concise can I be and still get my meaning across? How can I convey the most information with the fewest words?

Sometimes the story needs to relax into a leisurely unfolding of events and information. It’s part of the ebb and flow of the narrative. At the beginning, and in important conversations that set up and develop friction between characters, it’s generally more effective to keep the scene short, clear, and focused. When information is doled out sparingly, in carefully chosen increments, the reader keeps reading. She’s eager to find out more.

Best of luck, and kudos for offering up this novel for critique. There’s good stuff here. Once the prose is honed and polished, I do think it will shine.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2018, Fantasy

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

Tripartite Chapter 1 (Revised) by Taliyah St. James

This is a good opening chapter. It starts off peacefully, defining who Kayla is and what she does. Then the pace picks up; we find ourselves in the middle of unfolding action. We can see what’s happening and to whom, and we catch a glimpse of how the plot will proceed from here. The pacing overall is quick, and the end of the chapter pulls us straight into the next.

Structurally, so far, we’re on solid ground. The prose has some work to do.

The first thing I would point to is an issue with characterization as well as style and diction. Kayla’s emotions tend to ramp up to 11, and to do so in repetitive sequences.

She wanted to talk to someone, but she hadn’t made any friends in Philly, no one who she could really talk to, no one she could tell about the hallucinations, no one who would laugh with her about the man outside Dr. Richards’ office, not even someone whom she could tell about Dr. Richards.

This kind of repetition-for-emphasis can be quite effective, but a little goes a long way. Especially when it’s combined with the ongoing internal monologue about her loneliness and her strange visual malfunction, it presses the issue just a little too hard, a little too long.

The same applies to her estrangement from her family. We’re told about it several times, in much the same words each time, with the same structure of estranged/wishes she weren’t/wants to get back in touch/can’t bring herself to.

In each case, judicious pruning and tightening will actually make the emotional arc stronger. Find just the right place for each bit of information, and let it resonate through the rest. If it needs to be brought up again, do so briefly and use different words; develop it a little more, add a touch of new information, so that we move forward even while we’re reminded of what we were told before.

A large part of the art of revision is the ability to position each nugget of information in just the right place. Put it there and it changes and enhances the whole novel. This applies to characterization, plot developments, emotional arcs—all the way down to the placement of words and phrases.

For example we’re told she’s in Philadelphia rather late in the chapter, so that for a moment I thought she lived somewhere else and had just arrived in the city. Then the context told me the novel is set in Philadelphia. If I’d had the information at the beginning, I wouldn’t have had that moment of confusion.

There’s another form of confusion that’s actually an attempt to clarify. Particularly when two characters of the same gender are interacting, rather than get tangled up in the pronouns, the narrative offers synonyms: Marla/the coordinator/the woman, her mom/the elder woman. The problem is that every time we get a new synonym, we have to stop and wonder if we’re being introduced to a new character. As a reader I prefer simple repetition of the character’s name or epithet (her mom, for example)—like said, it’s basically neutral, and it helps me keep track of who’s doing what.

While we’re looking at the use of words and the structure of sentences, I’d also like to suggest paying careful attention to the meanings of specific words, and to the ways they fit together. Sometimes when we’re trying for unusual images or combinations of words, we don’t quite hit the mark. Figurative language needs to be straight on point.

The man with the shadows on his face is almost there, but shadows has a different connotation than the shadowy nubs it’s meant to refer to. Face and forehead are two different kinds of facial space, and shadows have their own heft of meaning apart from the vestigial horns Kayla sees. A simple fix (I do like simple) is to change face to forehead. Or change it to the man with the shadowy horns or a similar variation on the theme.

Tears threatened Kayla’s eyelids is a little bit inside out. The context seems to be that tears are threatening to spill over, but the strong active construction actually shifts the meaning from “she’s almost ready to cry” to “tears from elsewhere assault her eyelids (but not necessarily her eyes),” or even “something is threatening to tear or shred her eyelids.”

A frown that dimpled his cheeks is hard to visualize. A frown is the drawing together of the eyebrows. Lately it’s shifted to, or been expanded to include, the mouth. (I’m old school. I say Nope. But English is a living language, and living things change.) I’m not sure how the cheeks fit into it, and dimples usually appear when a person is smiling. I’d like a clearer sense here of what the character is doing.

think it’s good to push the envelope with style and imagery, but sometimes we (and I include myself in this, for sure) find ourselves in a different word-universe than the one we intended.Then we have to pull back, regroup, and usually simplify.

There’s lots of potential here, and I love the way the chapter ends with a bang and a swoop—on to chapter two! Best of luck, and happy revising.

—Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2018, Short Story

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

Hotwire And The Concrete Rainbow by RM Graves

“Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow” snagged my attention this month with the places it departs quietly from archetype: a round spacebound girl who joins a punk band with a backpack of books, whose core emotion isn’t resentful anger but a kind of grief. It kept it with some deft thematic work, but there’s room to grow here too in order to make this piece shine. So this month, I’d like to talk about pacing and its context: how we can look to each scene and feeling in a story to dictate the pace of the last and next.

As ever with this author, I love the voice in this piece: lines like “the power of keeping your mouth shut in a time of commoditised opinion” and “being the size of two bulls shagging” made me laugh out loud. There’s always a wry sense of humour in this author’s work that makes it move and dance even—especially—when in dark places, and it really fits well with a future punk aesthetic. As does the sheer physical grounding of “Hotwire”: lines like “palms tipped up to the drizzle – to cool the throb of my new stigmata piercings – and my head in the clouds”, the space station as septum piercing, the cables and sharing bodily sensation versus plugging into the void, how deeply Sidney feels music, the difference between being dead and alive—all create a tangible, undeniable theme-and-variation on physicality. What results is a story about the difference between scene and relationship, real and unreal, that’s firmly grounded in the body: the fallibility and modifiability of bodies, fake digital bodies, a craving for the real—and then builds into imposter syndrome and image and how adapting the world to yourself fits into the very notion of space habitats, into experiencing the real.

There’s also an interesting juxtaposition in Sidney’s hurt, defensive attitude toward her parents and how anguished and avoidant she is about hurting them; how anguished and avoidant she is about letting anybody down. She’s a struggling people-pleaser, someone who’s got a significant amount of independence in her day-to-day life (her own flat, no chip), an ache to be noticed, and boundaries that barely exist, and there’s a painful, hopeful aspect to watching her struggle, half self-aware. I’d be tempted to unwind that struggle with a little more subtlety and gradualness. “Who wants me more?” lays that internal conflict out baldly, and I think that tips the story’s hand a little too early. That conflict’s clearly demonstrated further down in the scene, and it’s an interesting emotional hook to spool out longer, more satisfyingly.

Which leads into the core suggestion I have for “Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow”: an editing pass with an eye to the emotional pacing and line of conflict. The opening, in particular, feels a little emotionally abrupt, and the turn into Jack and Skart’s breakup and Skart’s transition from rejecting Sidney to accepting her again was quick enough that they inspired a little whiplash. I’m not sure where any of those emotions are rooted—that quick-fire rejection/acceptance/belonging—and their suddenness frays my immersion in the world and the story.

There’s a lot of mileage in interesting worldbuilding and narrative voice, but by the time Sidney’s driving the truck to the gig, the cumulative effect of those quick and shallow-feeling turns meant I found myself lightly disengaging; not enough was, for me, escalating, developing, or changing.

These issues are ones that exist specifically in tandem. The emotional turns feel abrupt because the intermediate scenes are moving slower; the intermediate scenes feel slower by contrast with the emotional turns. When we’re reading a story for pacing, we’re reacting less to an objective measurement than the subjective, contextual one the story itself has already set: just like driving a car, fast feels slow if we’ve been going breakneck already, and vice versa. Sometimes the key to correcting a pacing issue isn’t altering the scenes where it itself shows up: it’s adjusting their context.

So with that in mind, I’d suggest taking the problem on as a linked problem, and attacking it from both ends. Specifically, I’d try playing the grounding and physicality up—play to the story’s strengths. The line of patter here carries the piece far, but I think relying on it too strongly might be the root of some of the story’s pacing issues; it’s a narrative style that takes a lot of page space to maintain, and tends to talk around experiences rather than getting directly to the heart of them. Shifting some, but not all, of that weight to visceral physical detail—playing up those thematic connections around embodiment hard—might pop “Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow” into colour and assist with the pacing issues all at once. The intermediate scenes come out stronger, more vivid, sharper, and shorter by virtue of cutting a little wordcount; the plot turns look calmer and better-paced by comparison. Neither has to change much; they just meet in the middle more effectively.

The second major issue is the ending, and that I’m not sure the question being asked is the one being answered by Sidney’s choice to connect to the void. The conflict set up is very much to do with acceptance, with being seen and love and fake versus real regard, and the answer given feels abruptly decisive, not entirely built up to, and as if it’s solving a different problem than the one posed. Committing to the punk scene might answer the question of where Sidney’s going to sleep tonight, but I’m not sure it solves that hesitation, that people-pleasing, that deep hurt that characterizes her from the very first scene. I didn’t get a sense of solace or progress for that pain, and the ending doesn’t land satisfyingly for me as a result: I feel the echo of the resolution I’m supposed to feel, but just the echo.

So while looking at the pacing, I’d suggest a strong look at aligning the conflict with the solution, and vice versa, in the same fashion: adjust the problem a little, or adjust the solution. As long as they meet in the middle, the average speed will work out.

All in all, there’s a lot of potential here: a truly interesting protagonist I feel for, a fresh-feeling take on space habitat living, a concreteness I can relish and read with my hands. I very much look forward to seeing a new version!

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2018, Fantasy

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

Dream Hunters (Working Title) Chapters 1 and 2 by Debra Sylver

I’m impressed with this submission not just because of all the thought that’s gone into the plotting and worldbuilding, but because of the dedication it takes to stay with one’s characters through four complete novels. That’s worthy of much respect.

An Editor’s Choice review is a little bit different from others in that it tries to look at issues of more general interest as well as those that are specific to the individual submission. Here I’d like to talk about the challenges of beginning the fourth novel in a series. On the one hand, many readers will presumably have read the first three books and be familiar with the characters and their stories. On the other, some will be picking up the series for the first time here. What’s an author to do?

It’s a balancing act. The author has to sum up previous events and reintroduce characters clearly enough that the new reader gets the picture while the longtime reader appreciates the reminder without feeling over-reminded. The pacing needs to be brisk especially at the beginning of a fantasy adventure, but not so brisk that the reader (both new and old) loses track of who’s who. On the other hand, if it’s too leisurely, the story will stall and the reader will wander off.

As a new reader, I very much appreciate the capsule synopses in the author’s note, though when I read the chapters I put those aside and tried to read as if I’d just picked up the book. With a published novel I’d have the cover copy to guide me, and that would be it.

I found that I wasn’t having a great deal of trouble keeping up with the characters. The action is clear enough at the beginning, and there’s plenty of clueing-in to the identities of characters who have appeared in previous volumes.

What I would suggest especially at the very start is a deep pruning of Caitlin’s internal monologue, paring away repetition and making choices as to where those repeated phrases and chunks of information would be most effective. For example the first chapter, and therefore the novel, starts with a line of dialogue, which is a tricky thing to do; it can be quite dramatic, but it also needs some quick framing in order for the reader to get the context. The framing here is lengthy and tends to repeat the same ideas in different ways (and sometimes in the same ways—the repetition of fault for example, and Caitlin’s ruminations on different realities, including the frequent reminders that nobody in this reality would believe the other reality exists). For the most part we’re inside Caitlin’s head, with brief intervals on the outside as Liam takes his martial-arts class.

For me as a reader, it feels as if this balance should be reversed. Less internal monologue, more external action. Less description, too, and less backstory. Just give us what we need to know right here and now. The rest will come up later as it’s relevant.

When I’m revising a draft in which I’ve put in everything I as the writer need to know in order to build my world and story, I ask myself what does the reader need to know now? Can I pick one or two essential details, and let those contain the rest? Do I need to describe the entire setting (or go into detail in describing a character) or just the elements that are important at this particular point? If I leave anything out, is it still clear what’s going on?

Another thing I would like to suggest is a bit of re-framing on the sentence level. I noticed as I read that Caitlin tends to think in a certain pattern, and it’s often in negatives. The structure is subject – verb – object – but:

He seemed to be a natural, but

Caitlin wouldn’t ask him directly, but

It was inevitable that she would meet them again, but

The cumulative effect is of ongoing negation of whatever the initial thought happens to be. We’re set up for one reaction, then told nope, not happening. It’s an interesting insight into Caitlin’s personality and thought processes, but it’s also a bit disorienting.

There are other forms of negativity as well, which add to the effect:

Not that it was dirty—in fact, the room was spotlessly clean

It didn’t escape her that

That didn’t really clear anything up.

wasn’t sure how

was never that excited

Note how in each case, instead of stating a fact straight up, we’re told what it’s not. It made me wonder as I read, how Caitlin would come across if all her negatives were switched to positives. Would she be a different person? Would that affect how she acts and reacts within the story? Would the story itself change?

It’s certainly an interesting story. I love Caitlin’s were-lion persona, and I like that she’s so invested in making the different realities safe for Liam—as well as giving him the tools to protect himself. It not only makes her a good sister/foster parent, it gives her more depth as a character.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2018, Horror

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

 

The Gray Tabby by William Stone

I know this piece wasn’t intended as a complete story but more as a sketch or exercise.  But I was drawn into it and wanted to keep reading, and I think it could become a really engaging and involving story.  So I wanted to offer this feedback in case it’s helpful.

An intriguing character in an unusual situation can very effectively draw readers into a story.  You don’t need to be flashy or extreme.  You just need an intriguing character, such as a college student so irritated by having to clean the toilet and change the toilet paper while his roommates do nothing that he decides to move off campus, in an unusual situation, such as commuting to college from an out-of-town trailer park, where he rents a trailer that was previously home to a cat who was killed.

That, along with the fairly smooth writing, drew me into “The Grey Tabby.”  As the story goes on, though, I don’t think these elements are developed as strongly as they might be.  The intriguing character, who seems particular and easily irritated, becomes laid back and not very emotionally involved in anything that happens.  So the characteristics that initially drew me in seem to fade away, and the character moments I anticipated–the narrator becoming dissatisfied with his new place and irritated by the irresponsible people around him, and this building to a climax–never happen.  Writers can certainly reveal a character to be different than what readers anticipated, but the character needs to be at least as intriguing as he initially seemed to keep readers satisfied.  Instead, the narrator becomes less intriguing, mainly serving as a camera through which readers experience the story.  Looking back on the story, the narrator kind of seems to be doing what the author needs him to do for the story.  He seems to get irritated at dorm life only because the author needs him to move to the trailer park, not because that’s a part of his personality.  Someone who moves out of town because his roommates won’t take their turns cleaning the toilet is not someone who will pick up the poop of the neighbor’s dog without taking steps to stop it or move.  Instead, after one brief complaint, he gives up.

If the narrator’s initial traits lead to increasing conflict through the story, the character will feel more consistent, readers will remain intrigued, and suspense will increase.  This connects to another area that I feel can be strengthened, which is that the narrator needs to be struggling to achieve a goal.  He easily finds a new place to live, the trailer park, and after that, he forms the goal of getting the dog’s owner to keep the dog out of his yard, but he quickly abandons that and seems to have no strong goal after that.  So he’s not struggling to achieve anything.  He goes to school, works, interacts with the cat, and the story starts to feel kind of repetitive.  He’s mainly a bystander.  He’s not present for the climax, when the cat kills the dog.

Similarly, the unusual situation isn’t developed as strongly as it might be.  We see that the cat scares the dog, so when the dog is killed by running in front of the car, we know that the cat scared him.  But this doesn’t involve building conflict or suspense.  It’s simply an explanation provided for an event.  The story is structured as a revelation story, with the last line revealing the cat was the ghost of the one previously killed.  But most readers of horror or supernatural fiction would figure this out very early in the story.  Once we learn that a cat that previously lived in the narrator’s trailer was killed by the neighbor’s dog, and we see a mysterious cat show up at the narrator’s door, we know that cat is the ghost of the dead one.  I formed that theory as soon as the cat appeared with its “shining yellow eyes.”  About a page later, when the cat frightens the dog, I’m sure my theory is correct.  So structuring the story with the big reveal at the end that the cat is a ghost doesn’t work well, because most readers will already know that.  Instead, the story needs to get that revelation out of the way quickly and allow this unusual situation to develop and twist in unusual ways.  For example, perhaps the cat wants the narrator to leave the trailer that once belonged to his owner, so the cat starts pooping (spectral poops, I suppose, which could be nasty) in the toilet, creating a worse mess than the narrator had to deal with in the dorm.  Then the narrator could struggle to get rid of the cat (so he’d be struggling to achieve a goal).  Or the narrator could fall in love with the dog’s owner, so he’s got an internal conflict between his desire to help the cat get even with the dog and his desire to keep his love happy (which means keeping her dog alive).  Both of these seem like they would take the story in a somewhat humorous direction.  For a more frightening option, the cat might have been killed not by the dog but by an abusive boyfriend of the cat’s owner.  The ghost cat shows up, looking for the boyfriend to exact revenge, but finds only the narrator.  The narrator has a different girl over every night–perhaps this is why he moved out of the dorm.  He’s not a nice guy and doesn’t treat them well.  One morning, he has a fight with the girl, pushes her, and the cat attacks him, scratching him up badly.  At this point the narrator thinks the cat is the ghost of the one the landlady said was killed by the neighbor’s dog, but the dog doesn’t seem very fierce.  Frightened, the narrator tries to secure his trailer.  He has another girl over, so he doesn’t have to be alone, and when she suggests he’s afraid, he yells at her.  The cat mysteriously gets in and attacks him again.  The narrator throws the cat outside, thinking it might go after the dog, but it doesn’t.  Desperate to find some way to stop the cat, the narrator searches for and finds the cat’s grave and digs it up, finding a bloody man’s boot buried with the cat.  He seeks out the cat’s owner and finds she is living with an abusive guy–the owner of the boot.  He tries bringing the cat to that house, but the cat vanishes.  He invites the guy to the trailer under false pretenses and locks him in, so the cat will get its revenge and leave him alone.  But one of the narrator’s girlfriends shows up and hears horrible sounds inside.  She insists they have to help the person inside.  He fights with her and knocks her down to stop her.  When the sounds subside, he opens the door to see what has happened.  The owner of the boot is dead.  Then the cat attacks the narrator and kills him too.

The structure of ending by revealing that the story had a ghost in it was used quite a bit about a 100-150 years ago.  Modern readers are looking for something that provides a twist or takes the ghost story in a new direction (the movies The Sixth Sense and The Others twisted this structure by making the protagonist the ghost and unaware of that fact).  I think reading some recent ghost stories could help provide a sense of what readers would be familiar with.  Reading a few volumes of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror edited by Paula Guran, and The Best of the Best Horror of the Year edited by Ellen Datlow (which compiles the best stories in her previous ten best-of-the-year anthologies) should help provide a sense of the horror field.

For me, “The Grey Tabby” doesn’t fit within the horror genre, because it doesn’t evoke horror or any of those dark related emotions.  Suspense is another quality important to horror, and I don’t feel much suspense either.  This could be called a ghost story or supernatural story.  If the story is intended to create fear, suspense, terror, or other associated emotions, I think the narrator needs to be more emotionally involved in events, more disturbed, challenged, and frightened by events.  This should come out in the character’s actions, thoughts, and descriptions.

I think the story has some strong ingredients and some nice writing, but those ingredients could be developed more strongly, in a more emotional and unpredictable direction.  I hope this is helpful.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2018, Science Fiction

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

Phage Chapter 14 by Michael Keyton

I love genre-bending, I do confess. I am particularly fond of disaster stories and especially plague stories. (It’s the medievalist in me.) The combination of near-future science fiction and monster-at-the-windows horror is one of my favorites. All which is to say that this submission ticks quite a few of my boxes.

It also accomplishes something that doesn’t happen that often: it’s stayed with me. The setting, characters, and overall thrust of the plot are clear in my head. I even got to spend a happy half-hour listening to anharmonic music, partly to immerse myself in the soundtrack of the chapter and partly for the raw physical experience, that thrum through the bones. In short, the draft needs work, of course, but the framework is strong.

For this Editor’s choice I’d like to address a couple of issues.

1. “Floating Heads”

Here and there in the chapter, the dialogue gets going so fast that it leaves the rest of the narrative behind. Exchanges go on and on, snapping back and forth, with an occasional pointer to who’s speaking. Even with those pointers, the frame gets lost. We’re left with sets of fast lines floating in space.

It’s not a complicated fix. Doesn’t need a whole lot of said-words and throat-clearing and shifting around. Just a line once in a while to tether the conversation to the story.

It may help to break up some of the conversations. Make them shorter. Tighten and condense the rush of information. Let the characters (and the reader) stop for breath.

2. Viewpoint-tagging

My second observation is the opposite of the first. Floating Heads have too little going on. Viewpoint tags have too much. One expects the reader to fill in all the relevant context. The other is nudging constantly: I’m here, I’m here, did I mention I’m here?

By viewpoint tags I mean all those little reminders that the character is present. Words like thought, wondered, felt, looked, watched, saw, surveyed. Longer passages, too, stretching into internal monologue while the story waits for the character to stop thinking and the action to start again.

There must be a rule somewhere that “You Must Always Make Sure The Reader Knows Who Is Telling The Story.” That’s true, mostly, but first, trust yourself. And second, trust your reader.

Once you’ve established the POV of a scene, you won’t need to keep pointing to it unless there’s a shift to another POV. We know the character is thinking, seeing, feeling, without needing to be told in so many words. It’s implicit in the idea of a viewpoint character. Let the story happen without the filter. Just tell it direct, and we’ll know whose eyes we’re using at the time.

In revision, perhaps try an experiment: get rid of all the viewpoint tags. Then read what you have left, and see if it still makes sense. One or two tags might go back in for clarity, but most should turn out not to have been necessary.

Writing is a balancing act, always. A little more here, a little less there. As long as the story itself is solid—and as far as I can see from this chapter, it does seem to be—the rest should be fairly straightforward to fix.

Best of luck, and happy genre-bending!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2018, Short Story

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

Harvest by Hannah Hulbert

“Harvest” got my attention this month with its hushed, pervasive atmosphere and the ease with which it made a long story feel quick and engaging. So this month, I’d like to talk about how our deployment of science-fictional worldbuilding affects engagement and suspension of disbelief, and how it’s not about facts, but context—both when writing worlds and the people who live in them.

“Harvest” does good work at the quick establishment of a world and relationships early on. Lines like “everyone knew how Forto felt about complaints” imply a history and routine, and the use of implication and subtext between Forto and Dejori sets considerable atmosphere—as does the image of a woman gathering moisture from aluminum harps in the dense fog.

The author’s note asked about quantity of worldbuilding in a first attempt at science fiction, and the best way I can sum that up as a reader is that I’m not sure how the harps work to harvest moisture, but I’m not sure I need to. The image strikes a balance between technical and otherworldly that “Harvest” handles well overall. As with the details of Colony 264’s cold weather and late twilight, the story tells us how people live in this environment, instead of stating orbital or temperature details. The clear advantage to this worldbuilding approach is that when introducing science-fictional information, what “Harvest” actually describes is not just a planetary fact (“it is cold here”) but how people live in relationship to that fact, both collectively and individually. Forto’s forgetfulness about just how cold the cold is tells me about the confines of his life—sedentary, predictable, routinized, and privileged-in-decline—and his respirator when Amiko lacks one speaks volumes about the society that they’ve built here.

It’s that layering of information that makes the worldbuilding in “Harvest” work well for me. People are in interaction with technology that outstrips our own, and even if I don’t understand the technology or that technology isn’t engineering-accurate, I can see clearly the social, economic, and individual relationships they’ve formed with and because of it. The ripples of these stones in people’s lives are easy to observe, and because of that, my suspension of disbelief is in good standing.

Where it doesn’t work for me is in certain questions of why. Why is water scarce enough to farm, if the valley is perpetually full of fog, and walking outside means getting soaked? Why build Amiko’s shack of iron, when there’s moisture in the air, and it’ll rust? If the plexiglass windows are designed to withstand earthquakes, why isn’t the rest of the plant similarly engineered? Why is Dejori’s promotion worth murdering for—why not just go somewhere else? And most importantly, why does Forto decide he’s in love with Amiko? He mostly conceptualizes her in terms of his dead wife, like an idea of a woman to fill a hole rather than a person in her own right, with affection between them.

One suggestion, to that end, is considering the timeline. The entire piece takes place over about eight days—which means eight days from meeting to marriage proposal for Forto and Amiko, and that’s a bit of a rush for anybody. Time pressure doesn’t appear to be a factor in any other aspect of the story, and a lengthened timeline—one that doesn’t necessarily need to appear on the page—would give a little more credence to the idea of them establishing a routine, Amiko’s coming out of her shell, and Dejori’s fears of being pushed out, and would set a bit more reasonable context for Agrablaj’s somewhat inappropriate prodding. As it stands, everyone appears to be jumping the gun.

But that question does speak to the core sticking point I have with “Harvest” as a reader: that it’s a story about a relationship that hasn’t yet sunk the care it took with extraplanetary worldbuilding into that central relationship. The story itself seems to be a machine to get two characters together—a set of circumstances that ends in kissing—but even Amiko seems ambivalent about the outcome, as she’s quite correct that they know nothing about each other. It’s a positive, for me, that Forto’s instinct is not to increase Amiko’s dependency—to offer more charity, or provide for her—but to help her build on her own skills so she can better support herself. He’s not abusive or controlling. But the very fact that Forto worries his technical help will mean Amiko not coming back to the plant says there’s no real relationship happening here.

So I’m left unsure why these two people, of all people, make a happy ending when they’re together. Forto is lonely and Amiko’s, well, around, but that has nothing to do with Amiko as a distinct, unique human being. Amiko is poor where she was once rich, and Forto is rich, but that has nothing to do with Forto as a distinct, unique human being. And while the genetic hierarchy of Colony 264 makes for interesting background flavouring, I’m not sure it alone is enough to act as motivation for both attempted murder and an eight-days-in marriage proposal. People aren’t, in my experience, Kinds of People; Amiko’s genetic diversity and her just being handy aren’t enough to move two hearts. People are themselves, and people need reasons.

What I’d suggest for the next draft of “Harvest” is to transfer the care taken with the setting to Forto and Amiko as people, individually and in relationship. Who are these two people, and why—aside from motivations like loneliness or three square meals a day, the motivations any warm body can fill—does the story feel it should be satisfying, at the end of 9,000 words, that they end up together? What problem does this hasty marriage resolve?

With a more nuanced answer to that question, I think “Harvest” will come out a much better-balanced piece.

Best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2018, Science Fiction

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

Balaam’s Donkey- Chapter One by Mike Jackson

There are some interesting ideas here, in a frame of biting satire. It’s rather timely and could be quite incisive. The robot/golem in particular has all sorts of dramatic and satirical potential.

I have a couple of suggestions for making the text more easily readable and for bringing out the ideas and characters in ways that will make them both clearer and stronger. The first is a fairly simple formatting rule (in the sense that every rule is there to be bent or broken, as long as you know what you’re doing—but first, try it the “right” way and see how it works).

One paragraph per speaker. Every time someone talks, give him his own paragraph. That way, it’s easier to follow the back and forth of the conversation, and the shorter paragraphs make the story overall easier to read. I like to keep bits of stage business together with the bits of dialogue as well, so that each character gets a paragraph to talk, act and react, and so on.

Try it; see how it works. As it becomes more familiar, it then becomes easier to know when to bend the rule.

Humor is hard. It’s much harder to write humor than straight narrative, because every word counts, and the timing and the language have to be spot on. The humor here has almost a middle-grade feel, but the subject matter is more Adults Only. I wonder if it might help to ponder the difference between humor and satire. Satire can be much sharper-edged; humor makes you laugh, but satire can make you wince.

If this novel is meant to lean toward satire, it needs some very careful editing and revising. The broadly sexist jokes and the robot’s frequent verbal misfires could hit even harder with tight and focused editing and meticulous choice of words and phrases.

A clearer sense of the religious aspect would help, too. This draft focuses more on the humor; the satire comes through less distinctly. It’s not meant to be a sermon, that’s clear in the text as well as in the author’s note, but I think we need to see more of the religious side of the story in this opening chapter.

One thing that will help with this, and generally make the novel read more smoothly, is better organization of sentences and paragraphs. Keeping the exposition to a minimum and focusing on characters’ actions and interactions can be a challenge in science fiction because the world at the outset is unfamiliar. On the one hand, the story wants (needs) to move quickly enough to draw the reader in and keep her reading, but on the other, she has to get a clear enough picture of what the world is like that she doesn’t bounce off all the strange words and concepts.

The writing has to be really, really focused in order to make both of these things happen at once. I often make the point that first draft can be whatever it needs to be—its job is simply to get the story blocked out for the author’s benefit. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it may not even make sense to anyone other than the author. And that’s OK.

The revision stage is where the author takes his very personal process and turns it into a working draft—one that makes sense to a reader who hasn’t lived in this world or known these characters. In this case, the order in which details are presented is as important as the number and choice of these details.

Here’s a fairly typical paragraph. It’s also the opening paragraph, which means that it’s the reader’s first introduction to the novel:

Rob woke with a start. Eyes wide open, sucking in the air with enormous wheezes. His fellow passengers stared at him in embarrassment.  The woman in the seat opposite leaned in with mock concern. “Mister, you need to get that looked at! You really do!” He had woken from the same dream he had had most nights for as long as he could remember. It wasn’t some undiagnosed apnea that woke him, it was the weight of despair, the fear combined with panic and hopelessness that always brought him round. As he focused on his surroundings Rob smiled apologetically as a synthetic voice broke the silence.

The opening sentence is a classic. It may be part of the humor or satire, because it’s been used so often in so many different works. It certainly sets the tone, and is relevant to what happens next.

First we get a picture of what he’s doing, then we’re introduced to “his fellow passengers,” so he’s on some form of transport (a good quick bit of scene-setting), and the transport apparently has seats in rows. We meet a fellow passenger, and she speaks to him, but mockingly–people aren’t nice here, we deduce.

And then suddenly we’re back in the viewpoint character’s head, he’s had a recurring dream, and his state of mind is wretched. And then he focuses, and is apologetic, and there’s an announcement.

There’s a lot going on here, and the order of events is a bit chaotic. He wakes, people react, he reacts. It might be easier to follow if he wakes, we’re told about the dream, then the woman speaks, then the announcement goes off.

This kind of narrative chaos can work if it’s consistent and if the writer is deft with timing and choice of words. It’s not a terrible opening paragraph, if a little mixed up—but then so is Rob.

The rest of the chapter shows a consistent tendency to mix up ideas, actions, and exposition. It’s hard for the reader to follow, and it reads as if the author is jotting down ideas as they occur to him. Nothing wrong with that in first draft, but in revision, it’s important to make sure ideas and actions follow in logical or consistent sequence. Here for example:

The journey from home had taken fifty six days. Many had travelled with Rob from Canada. Toronto YYZ was by far the biggest embarkation point for travellers from Earth to the Solar System. There had been a short stop off on Mars and then three full weeks of weightlessness. Passengers paid premium rates to travel in ships with gravity generators and Rob’s employers did not see gravity as worth the expense.  Rob had not been sick but he had not enjoyed the experience. He had tried to be social but his unusual sleeping habits made it hard to make friends.

We start off with the length of the journey, jump to “many” who apparently are passengers, then there’s a bit about Toronto and Mars, followed by a jump to ships with gravity generators and how it’s expensive and Rob’s employers won’t pay for it, so he didn’t feel very good and he wasn’t successful socially, and then we learn he has trouble sleeping. There is a narrative sequence, but there’s a lot going on in a lot of different directions.

One way to fix this particular paragraph would be to reorganize it a bit, and break it up. Start off in Toronto—something to the effect that most of the passengers traveling with Rob began the fifty-six-day journey in Toronto with a stopover on Mars, followed by three weeks of weightlessness. New paragraph about gravity generators and how Rob doesn’t get any, and he hasn’t been able to be social between the weightlessness and the strange sleeping habits. Then back to the present and Mikael, with a quick tag to let us know where and when we are. The reference to Rob’s problem works for that.

The trick is to focus on one detail at a time, and make sure the chronology is clear. Start at the beginning, filling in details like the length of the journey after you’ve established where it all starts, and when you introduce a new idea, start a new paragraph. That little bit of formatting-fu can make a huge difference to the flow of the story.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2018, Fantasy

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

The Unknown Ones, Chapter 1 by Peter Kelly

I love historical fantasy. Historical fantasy is my jam. Add Celts, and pointers toward Roman Britain—you’ve got me with some of my favorite things.

This chapter has a lot of potential. I can see a story taking shape. It hasn’t really gone anywhere yet, but it is moving. This may be a long book, as historical novels can turn out to be, but that’s fine, as long as the story stays in motion and the characters and their actions and reactions keep the reader turning the pages.

My main advice to a first-time writer would be to keep writing, and not worry about doing it “right.” Just get the story down and the characters blocked out. Let the words come in the way they want to come. Worry about revision after the draft is finished, when it will be time to go back and tidy up and sort out the various threads of the story.

That being said, since I’m here to offer a more general set of pointers as well as to address the chapter at hand, here are a few things I noticed as I read. I would say don’t worry about making the fixes now, and don’t let that worry get in the way of finishing the draft. Finishing is the most important thing. Just take what I say here and file it for the revision phase.

First, viewpoint. There’s no doubt about who is telling the story. We’re reminded in every sentence. We’re told Calgacus thinks, feels, suspects, knows, understands, ponders, and so on. I call these “viewpoint tags,” and while it can be helpful to sprinkle in a few to keep the reader apprised of the camera angle, a little (as with so much else in writing) goes a long way. Most of the tags don’t need to be there; the choice of words, the nature of the reactions, the feelings and opinions and biases that come through the narrative, will tell the reader all she needs to know about who Calgacus is and how he feels about what he’s seeing.

Another layer of viewpoint is a bigger one, and that’s whether this is the right character to tell this part of the story. All the important things that happen here are happening to someone else. Calgacus is pretty strictly an observer, and in that respect he’s less a protagonist than a plot device. He describes the ceremony and its participants, and delivers exposition about who the people are and what they’re doing and why.

This is particularly noticeable when he Explains Things to Bricriu, on the pretext that Bricriu is too much of a jock to have paid attention in history class. While the reader may need or want to know these things, having Calgacus explain them to his older brother shows just a little too much of the scaffolding underneath the structure of the story. We want to feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing it with the characters. We end up wondering if Bricriu really has paid this little attention to one of the key elements of his religion, and if he has been that oblivious for so many years, whether he’d really bother to sit still when his brother starts godsplaining. Or would he just blow on past and leave Calgacus expounding to the air? And finally, would Bricriu really know that little about something that is so very important to his own future, let alone that of his tribe?

There’s also the question of why Calgacus isn’t the one who’s becoming a man this year. While I love the details and the exposition, as a reader I’m wondering when Calgacus will start protagging. Why is he the observer, and Bricriu the one who actually acts? If he has to be left out of the manhood ceremony for reasons that move the plot through to its eventual conclusion, what can he do here to show more of his active side? Is there something, some plot-piece, that he can be in charge of, that lets us see how he’ll be acting as he goes on?

Explaining and expositing don’t count. It should be something he does, some action he takes, or something he says that precipitates action—to which he then has to react.

Second, dialogue. The characters “quip” and joke around, and it seems they’re trying for some kid-level realism and comic relief in among the descriptions and the explanations. The problem with this in the draft is that the joking doesn’t move the story forward, and it clashes emotionally and stylistically with the ritual around it. I rather like Bricriu’s potty mouth, but the joshing and bickering slows down the narrative and keeps us from being able to really feel the power of what’s happening around it.

In revision, ask whether most of it really needs to be there. Some does help character, and we get a picture of an expanding cast of major and minor players, which is good. But again, a little goes a long way.

Third, names and naming. I’m a little confused about this, because some names are standard Celtic, such as Bricriu, but then there’s the Romanized Calgacus of the Epidii, and then there’s Martyn, whose name comes from another tradition altogether. Names have power, and in historical fantasy, that can be literal. Names make the magic. If the names aren’t consistent, and there isn’t a clear reason for that inconsistency, they undermine the worldbuilding.

Now mind you, I can give you a perfectly solid historical reason to have a character named Tiffany in your Viking historical, but that reason has to be clear and up front. If I’m writing in the viewpoint of a tweenaged boy in Britain, unless that boy is Roman or part Roman, he’s not going to give himself a Roman name. (Is he part Roman? Ione has a Greek flavor.) He’ll call himself something Celtic, and he’ll call his tribe by its Celtic name. Likewise his brother Martyn—what would the Celtic form of that be?

I would work on the names as carefully as the rest of the details, many of which, as lovely as they are, somewhat front-load the narrative here; I’d cut them about about 75% and save them to be woven in later where they’ll be more directly relevant. The depth of the research is clear to see. Let the names show it, too.

Best of luck with this. It’s a very good start. I’ll be interested to see how it progresses.

–Judith Tarr