Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Just Open The Door by David Eisman

One of the advantages of writing within a genre is that the author and readers share knowledge of a huge pool of works and their common elements.  This allows the author to introduce rich subtext into a story.  If I put the word “vampire” into my story, readers will think of Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight, and others.  Readers will think of the rules that often govern vampires, the various ways vampires have been destroyed, and why one may or may not want to destroy a vampire.  The author, then, can minimize exposition (background information, explanations), because the reader already knows a lot.  The author can focus on how her vampires are different, and on showing us this particular vampire story.  This can be invaluable in a short story, when every word is precious, and it can add layers of meaning, emotion, and resonance to a story.

“Just Open the Door” takes advantage of this pool of knowledge horror readers share.  By the end of the third sentence, I feel I’m in a familiar situation, often near the climax of a horror story/movie/novel, in which the protagonist, Richie, is fleeing the evil and has come to a dead end.  Because the situation is familiar, I don’t think I’ve missed anything critical to my understanding of the story.  My recognition of this situation also creates immediate suspense and urgency and allows the author to move the story ahead with a minimum of exposition.  I’m immersed in the situation and worried about what’s on the other side of the door.  The exposition is limited to how Richie’s mother was killed, which becomes key to understanding this situation.

But the story does more than use this familiar situation as a short cut.  The author very cleverly uses our recognition of the situation, our assumption that we know what has happened and what’s on the other side of the door, to twist all these expectations on their heads.  What at first sounds like a monster on the other side of the door comes to sound like Richie’s mother.  Normally, in such a story, the monster would be pretending to be Richie’s mother, and there would be no suspense in the deception because we wouldn’t be fooled.  But now, because we’ve come into this situation late, because we don’t really know what happened before, whether Richie is hallucinating that a monster killed his mother due to some mental illness or whether a monster that really did kill his mother stands on the other side of the door, the situation creates a lot of suspense.  Maybe there is a monster on the other side of the door.  Or maybe it’s Richie’s mother.

This all works very nicely.  For me, though, the ending, in which Richie decides to open the door, hoping it’s his mother, doesn’t quite work.  Right now, whether Richie decides to open the door or not seems up to the author.  I don’t feel a strong reason why Richie resolves his internal conflict by deciding to open the door.  He’s been fleeing up until this point.  Why would he change?  Just hearing his mother’s voice doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason.  He has previously heard very scary voices that clearly were not his mother.  Why would he believe this voice?  He asks his mother what he should do, abdicating his power at the climax, which isn’t satisfying to the reader.

The downside of inserting us into a familiar situation is that the story depends on its twist to succeed.  And the ending is part of this twist.

There are several possible ways to make Richie’s decision feel both surprising and inevitable, which are the qualities you want to have in a climax.  For example, there might be some piece of evidence that the voice claims proves that Richie is hallucinating.  We might recognize that the evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that; it could also prove the monster is real.  But Richie might believe the evidence proves he’s hallucinating and open the door for that reason.  Another possibility would be to have Richie reason things out, now that he has a moment to think.  If it is his mother on the other side of the door, then he should open the door.  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, then he lives in a world in which monsters can appear at any moment and kill loved ones, and he is so unfit to deal with this world that all he could do was run and let the monster kill his mother.  In such a world, he can’t survive.  So he might as well open the door.  That way, both possibilities lead to the same decision, so his decision isn’t random.  It’s the only possibility.

As I was writing that, I thought of another possibility.  He’s holding a shard of glass in his hand.  Maybe his thoughts run like this:  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, he doesn’t want to go out there and be killed by it.  If it’s his mother on the other side of the door, then he’s so mentally unstable he could kill her, thinking she’s the monster, and he doesn’t want to do that.  So he decides to kill himself.

Anyway, those are several possible ways to make his decision at the end feel both surprising and inevitable, and to feel like he’s really making that decision, not leaving it to his mother or to the author.

Other areas I think could be improved are the style and description.  Some unclear or awkward sentences and some unclear details confused and distracted me at times.  For example, I’m kind of confused about what sort of structure he’s inside.  He’s in a warehouse; I would think he’s either in a room with solid walls and a solid door, or he’s in a crate.  But he seems to be in neither, with this rusted sheet metal.  I don’t know what sort of shelf might be in this structure.  At first I picture a piece of wood maybe 3′ x 1′ x 1″ that rests on some brackets fastened to the wall.  But then why is it so heavy?  And how is he moving it?  It’s unclear how this will stop anyone from entering, and I don’t know why he’d get so many splinters that he would bleed.

The glass on the floor seems to appear suddenly.  I think it should be crunching under his feet while he’s looking for something to barricade the door.  And the amount of light in the room seems to change depending on what’s being described.

I have a hard time imagining this voice:  “it’s tongue slithers through every vowel and its jaw pops on every consonant.”

Emotions are told rather than shown at times, which distances us from Richie.  For example, near the end of the story, “The rage and confusion boil inside of me.”  These emotional labels (rage and confusion) are telling us Richie’s emotions.  If they are shown instead, we’ll feel them more strongly.

The description that “Tears stream down my face like a waterfall” feels exaggerated.  I don’t believe the human body has the capability to cry that much, so I’m thrown out of the story here.  Similarly, the image that Richie holds his head in his hands and rocks “it back and forth” doesn’t seem like a natural action.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the story and trying to figure out what was on the other side of the door.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Editor’s Choice Review April 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.

The Kaiju Man by J. L. Roberts

“The Kaiju Man” caught my eye this month with the utter surprise of how it blooms: a cleanly observed setup that just flowers into a transcendent, dreamlike, emotionally impactful piece of magical realism; an ending that’s utterly surprising, and yet completely organic—and yet not without room to improve. This month, I’d like to talk about how detail work can work both with and against us as writers, and the question of making a story its best self.

One of the major strengths of “The Kaiju Man” is a sense of observation that’s lyrical, fine-grained, and yet completely transparent and accessible. The paragraph with our protagonist driving out of Raleigh is beautifully textural—it describes not just landscape, but temperature, opinions (“the moisture and the heat haze combining to keep dirt on the ground where it belongs”) and change (“soon-to-come luxury housing developments starting in the mid-$200,000s”) in a very short space. None of these sentences are elaborate or baroque, but each sentence here is doing double duty: “the late morning light streaking out of the sky, pointing to this tree, that stretch of hillside” is gorgeous as a static image, and that sentence works even better because it makes the light kinetic—imbues motion into the narrative. I feel the effects of that work without actively noticing them, or being thrown out of the piece.

That’s a skill that needs to be balanced, however. As the kaiju approaches and the narrative fragments into more sensory impressions, though, the prose becomes much more visible, and I’m not sure it’s entirely a positive. I’d suggest pruning that section back somewhat: each of those details is beautifully rendered, but they stack up into something a little too overwhelming for me as a reader—something that blocks me from getting through to more story. Taking two or three sense impressions out of each part of that scene makes the other ones sharper and more meaningful, and the path a bit clearer for readers. That goes, likewise, for the scene with Hannah: the image of her framed against Layton’s iris is incredible, but it’s getting lost for me in the general denseness of metaphor that surrounds it.

Imagery isn’t just presentation, in a story: it’s the setting around it—in the jeweler’s sense. Imagery’s an art of contrasts. Setting something much more plain around an image, a moment, you want to spotlight makes it stand that much clearer, and can increase the impact immeasurably.

The density of detail has a structural effect, too: the pacing of “The Kaiju Man” stalls somewhat near the middle, around Layton taking out the boat and the protagonist’s observation of the fish. A bit of pruning as the story starts to slow will keep the pace of reading measured, and make sure that pacing isn’t telling readers details are important (spend more time on this!) when they aren’t just yet.

The worldbuilding and characterization are well-sketched in details here, too. It’s quite refreshing to see a male character whose career slump isn’t a source of bitterness, but a choice he himself made. It’s clear how much the protagonist loves Hannah—how much taking her perspective changed his own attitude to life—and that love makes his push to change her name to an English one (although, I’m noting Hana is a Japanese name too!) a much more interestingly complex one. Everything in this piece is grounded in a certain kindness, and that does something silent and earthshaking to how it’s read.

That hinting system works with the world too: the coral that’s not there anymore, the poverty around Layton’s brightly-painted house, the time since Fukushima all combine to create a sense of a certain kind of worn-down near-future. Considering how few details are given, the picture I’ve got of this version of the world is surprisingly complete, and that’s skilled work.

There is one silence in the worldbuilding that feels more like an omission: what degree of racism goes down in this area. Layton’s obviously changed his name, and there was obviously pressure for the protagonist and Melissa to change Hannah’s name; there are rumours about Layton in town, but the normally polite protagonist brings them up as if this isn’t going to hurt him (“do you know what they call you in town?” is not a neutral question). Layton lives in an emotional and social ecology as much as he inhabits a geographic one; I’d suggest thinking about what that looks like, and letting it inflect this interaction a little more.

There are also some version control issues here—two different Japanese names for Hannah, which switch midstream, for example; two stories about why they changed her name; the protagonist taking notes either with his phone or in a notebook—and a recurring tense bobble between present and past, but those are issues easily sorted out.

The major question in “The Kaiju Man”, though, is the protagonist’s transformation and their swim up the coast. There’s a nearly dreamlike feel to the scenes after he goes into the water, and while they stretch a bit long for me, the payoff is magnificent. To answer the question posed in the author’s comments, the ending here is gorgeous—I can feel the structure, the bump in the narrative of how quiet and emotionally affecting it is, and it works on me—but I couldn’t tell you what has just happened, or why, and that lack of intellectual closure puts a dent in my emotional satisfaction. There is a clue in Layton having lost his family, in how he and Hannah both have changed names, how Hannah has been sent away from home (to boarding school) again, but I’m scrambling for those clues. I feel the faint echo of those connections, but couldn’t say for sure that they’re intentional. I can’t tell if this is a familial connection or just the bond of shared experience: being more and different inside than you are outside, in a stranger’s country.

I’ve noticed the existing critiques on this piece have identified the same issue and suggested solutions that change what kind of story this is. I’d gently differ with them. There’s an urge sometimes, when there isn’t enough information about what story this is, to try to make it into a story more recognizable to that particular reader, and it’s not necessarily the most productive urge. This story is quite thoroughly itself, and it’s very good at being itself; structurally—that as an ending—this is powerfully affecting as it is. Even in a somewhat messy draft, “The Kaiju Man” moves me. The question, I think, is making it communicate itself more clearly: bringing information that’s currently in the subtext of “The Kaiju Man” up a little higher, nearer the level of the text. How might we get more clues without breaking that narrative dream?

I’d suggest that that’s a productive goal for the next draft of “The Kaiju Man”: locating the story you’d like to tell with it, finding the clues that are already there to point readers along the way, and thinking about how they can be clarified, or a few more puzzle pieces dropped into the cracks of the narrative so that the trail is clearer. This might be a two- to three-draft process, and will probably involve some tinkering, but getting it down without disrupting the gorgeous, almost reverent atmosphere of that last scene is, I think, well worth it. Please don’t make “The Kaiju Man” anything different than what it is: just show us a little more light.

Thank you very much for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Audit 1771: The Church Of The Thinking Hedonist CHAPTER 2 by Claudia Casser

When someone says, “If you’re uncomfortable with diverse viewpoints, you won’t want to read this,” I’m all over it. I read for pleasure and for relaxation, but I also read to stretch my mental muscles, and the way our genre has changed in the new millennium has really worked for me. It’s not always comfortable, but it is exhilarating.

This submission is right in my wheelhouse. One thing I try hard to do as a writer and reader is to constantly examine my assumptions. We all have them, and so many of them are so embedded in our world view that they’re invisible to us. When a work of fact or fiction calls them out and asks us to to take a good, hard look at them, we may be tempted to run veryveryfast in the opposite direction.

And that’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah in this chapter. She’s being tested, and so, as readers, are we.

It’s very easy when writing idea-based stories to slide over into preaching. It’s also very hard to write such stories with a light touch. Putting the two together is a serious high-wire act.

For me, it works. It stays on this side of my personal line for both idea-fiction and humor. I can see how it’s structured to set up Sarah and Therese as foils, and how Sarah has been set up by her adopted sect to confront her early conditioning and expand her ethical landscape. There’s a lot going on under the surface—and that takes skill.

To answer the author’s questions, I was not confused, but I did go back as instructed and check out the opening chapter. I had questions about the Flock, but just when I was about to make a note, Koo appeared and those questions were answered. Koo is a great character; I particularly like that the character is nonbinary, or rather hyperbinary.

My other question, about how and why the planet happens to be named Brunch, is not critical; I just happen, personally, to notice names, and I’m not sure this one works for me, again personally. I suppose it’s a play in Sunday brunch? It’s maybe a little too far in the direction of gonzo, in a story that otherwise balances its various elements with a deft touch. It seems to undercut the seriousness of the ethical underpinnings, while not quite managing to be on point for the humorous overlay.

But that’s a personal and idiosyncratic reaction. As a Very Serious Editor-Critter, I appreciate the brisk plotting and the distinctive voice. I might, if the writing were less skillful, wonder if setting an Amish woman turned agnostic in the middle of a cult of hedonists might be a bit over the top—but this variety of humor works because it is over the top. It’s making a point, and that point needs extreme examples.

Humor is hard. Props to this author for pulling it off—while also pulling off a potentially disastrous juxtaposition of ethical and moral systems.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Unnamed Sequel – Madness And A Little Beast by A Sands

Nonlinear writers fascinate me. I’m totally the opposite—I must write scenes in sequence or I cannot live—but it’s really interesting to watch a narrative grow out of clusters of discrete scenes. It’s tough to workshop an unfinished ms. written nonlinearly because only the author really knows how everything fits together. Once it’s finished and the whole structure is visible, it’s much easier to see what’s working and what needs work.

What I like about this submission is that it spells out up front how the ms. is being written, who the characters are, and what’s going on in the author’s head. That makes it a lot easier to get down in there and see what’s going on. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how the Queen and her family are not human. What are they, exactly? How does what they are relate to being human, and why is it important that they learn human body language?

Even without that information, I was appropriately amused by Queen Aldrua’s Very Conscious Awareness of what she’s saying with her various body parts and positions—and her overall, wonderfully terrible attitude. That attitude makes the chapter for me.

The technical term for it of course is “voice.” The choice of words, the way the characters act an interact, the overall feel and sense of the story. The voice here captures Aldrua’s state of mind in a beautifully unambiguous way. She is at the end of her tether, she is bound and determined to find her daughter or else, and everyone around her has completely exhausted her patience.

That voice kept me reading. The one thing I might do in revision would be to pare and prune especially the dialogue, tone it down a bit and tighten the focus. There’s a lot of repetition, much of which can go away.

But that’s for the revision stage. A draft gets itself written in any way that works. Repeating the same information over and over serves to a degree as a mnemonic—it’s like oral poetry: Achilles is fast on his feet, and that’s how we remind ourselves of who he is. It also gets the information in wherever it fits. Then, when the whole thing is put together, most of the reiterations can go away, but a few will stay where they make the most difference.

As for rules and the breaking thereof, I’m a great proponent of the Pirates’ Code. No matter how sternly your freshman composition teacher may have insisted that There Are Rules Of Writing And You Must Not Break Them, the truth is that all of them are simply guidelines.

There are some that a writer is advised to follow if she wants to be published. Manuscript formatting. Submission guidelines (which are really rules—it’s not a good idea to ignore those). Different genres have different expectations, which can get a writer in trouble if she pushes the envelope too hard.

But for the most part, a rule exists because if a writer breaks it without knowing what the rule is for, the writer’s work probably won’t hold together as well as it might otherwise. I remember when “head-hopping” was a cardinal sin, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shifting viewpoints within a scene. It only becomes a problem if the reader (and worse, the writer) can’t keep track.

The reader’s experience is what it’s all about. If she’s cruising along with one character, and then abruptly someone else is telling the story, it’s like a train going off the rails. She gets thrown out of her car, and if it happens often enough, she might just not stay around for the rest of the story.

But. If the writer knows what she’s doing, she can shift back and forth as much as she wants or the story needs her to, and the reader will travel along with her. That takes a degree of skill, and gaining that skill means knowing how to maintain a viewpoint as well as how to change it without leaving the reader hanging.

Or to put it more succinctly, If you know what you’re doing, you can do whatever you want to. Even repeat the same information over and over—because each time you do it, it reveals new layer of itself, or adds another degree of emphasis—or go way, way, way over the top with dialogue and banter, or mix up the timelines, or turn the narrative inside out. Whatever makes the story work.

Insofar as there are any secret handshakes for success in writing, this has to be one of them. A writer who is just learning how to do it will find it useful to learn the basic rules of her format and genre, learn why they are rules, and practice following them until she has them down. Then she can start messing around with them. Messing around is what makes a story interesting–but it has to be done with knowledge and skill, or it’s just a mess.

If there’s any rule I personally would promote, it’s that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Linear, nonlinear, outlining, pantsing, writing lengthy, detailed exploratory drafts or sketching the bare bones of a narrative—they’re all good. They all get there in the end.

And that’s the best part about this writing gig. Doesn’t matter how you get there, just as long as you do.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

They Didn’t Tell You by N. Howl

This story, told in second person, engages horror fans by comparing the familiar scenarios we encounter in fiction with the actual version encountered by this protagonist. I felt a joy of recognition with every reference to a familiar horror scenario. Contrasting these familiar elements with those the protagonist faces also makes the story feel more real, convincing, and intense.

Since the protagonist is defined mainly by the sensations experienced rather than particular character traits, the second person allows readers to put themselves in the place of the protagonist, adding to the impact of the story. The repetition of the words in the title helps to tie the story together.

My main suggestions involve strengthening these key elements through which the story works. First, the references to familiar horror scenarios. For me, references to playing “Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew,” entering “the house at the end of the lane,” investigating where teenagers died, imagining the killer as a “stylish vampire, ” “brilliant doctor,” or “vagrant covered in the grime and sweat of a year,” work very well. Other references don’t work as well. The idea of teens slashing “their bodies in a mass suicide” doesn’t sound like any horror story or movie I know. And I don’t understand what is meant by “a simple mystery by a simple cult.” If it’s suicide, then it’s not a mystery. The motive may be a mystery, but it’s not clear that’s what the protagonist is looking for. If he’s looking for a motive, why take fingerprints? If he’s looking for a killer, when did he figure out it wasn’t a suicide? The old diaries definitely seem like a familiar horror element, but finger prints are not usually a big element. I would expect things like a Ouija board, a mirror through which strange things appear, or the remnants of an insane asylum in the basement. I guess part of the issue is that some of the story is referring to familiar mystery story elements, and part refers to familiar horror story elements. For me, the horror story elements seemed dominant, so the mystery elements don’t seem to fit. I think the story needs to choose one or the other.

I like the idea that the protagonist has ignored “reality in favor of a pattern,” but what reality is being ignored and what pattern is being imposed on the situation? I think the pattern would be something that “they” had told the protagonist–for example, that the killer is in the house; that’s a very familiar horror scenario, so having the killer actually be in the house reinforces the cliché rather than contrasting with it. This could work if the protagonist expected the killer to be in the house, but the killer had actually left and only when walking by and seeing the protagonist’s light in the house did he decide to return to get some more victims. The protagonist might have let his guard down after searching through the house and not finding the killer, and that’s when he’s vulnerable to the killer.

The protagonist imagines “giving some long important speech about right and wrong,” yet this doesn’t feel like a familiar horror scenario. In my mind, if the protagonist gets a corner of the duct tape off, there are only two possibilities: scream your lungs out for help or find a phone and call 911 (and then the killer either cuts the cord or gets on the extension and says you’re goofing around).

The familiar horror scenario seems to disappear at the climax, when the protagonist tries for freedom. What always happens when the protagonist tries for freedom? I would expect that the protagonist would succeed. That seems missing from the story.

The second key element is what really happens to the protagonist, which contrasts with the familiar horror scenario. For me, finding nothing but random puddles of blood in the search of the house isn’t a strong contrast with what is expected. Finding some mundane items would be more of a contrast, such as posters of rappers wearing bling, colorful backpacks, expensive Nikes, cell phones, toaster ovens, and so on (I guess I’m imagining a frat house). The contrast of gentle versus forceful chloroform doesn’t seem worth talking about. I think the idea that the chloroform takes a long time to work, during which you’re squealing and snorting, is a more interesting contrast, along with the killer finally giving up and using the shovel.

The talk about “forced sleep” takes me out of the story and seems to be jumping back in time. This reduces the intensity of the situation and doesn’t create a strong contrast with what’s expected, so I would suggest cutting this paragraph.

I really like your contrast of the expected killer with the actual one, who seems like he “could have been your friend’s dad or uncle.” I think the story is at its best when you show the mundane nature of evil. The next paragraph undercuts this by talking about the killers eyes burning; that sounds like something I’d read in a horror story. His eyes should just look normal, to continue the description from the previous paragraph.

For me, the plot goes off track when the killer starts talking. The killer sounds crazy, or sounds like he’s being directed by some greater evil, or like he’s been twisted by bullying, all of which are familiar scenarios from horror stories. To continue the contrast with the familiar, the killer should say something else, maybe something like, “I just don’t like people.”

The feeling that the story has gone off track continues as the killer draws on the protagonist’s back with his knife and opens a door revealing some cosmic horror. While this isn’t a standard horror scenario, it feels fictional, not a strong contrast with the fictional. So for me, it doesn’t work as a contrast, providing the same joy the rest of the story provides, and it doesn’t work as horror, because I’m not reading the story that way and am not afraid. So my suggestion would be to make this more mundane. For example, maybe the killer is preparing to torture the protagonist, as expected, but then the door slams and the protagonist realizes help is coming, and the killer says, “Crap,” and kills the protagonist, because he has no time for more.

The final key element is the description, those sensory details that help put us into the body of the protagonist. I think some of those could be strengthened. For example, in para. 2, if the protagonist is trying to get a sense of where he is, I think he’s just woken up. In that case, his head would have been hanging down, and the burlap bag would not have been chafing his nose.

When the protagonist sees the killer, the killer has “a gut like a rock under a baggy T-shirt.” If the T-shirt is baggy, how is he seeing the rock? A rock is ragged; it doesn’t give me an image that looks like a gut.

The description of “the map of liquid fire” is nice, but before that, when “You feel the knife’s tip plunge in,” I can’t feel that. The filtering phrase “You feel” weakens the sentence and distances me from the protagonist. Filtering (establishing the means of perception) is really only necessary at the beginning of a story when the author needs to establish the point of view. Once that is set, filtering is rarely needed. When filtering is eliminated, the sentence can have a stronger verb. For example, “The knife’s tip plunges in.” The second part of the sentence “but it doesn’t penetrate fully,” is unclear. Doesn’t penetrate what? I’m sure it penetrates the skin, and the word plunge suggests it goes in some distance. Obviously it doesn’t go through the entire body, but I don’t think that needs to be said. Instead you could describe the sensation. I really want to feel whatever particular type of pain this causes.

I hope that gives you a sense of some areas where I think this can be strengthened. I was immediately pulled into the story and enjoyed reading it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos,editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Entwined by Marion Engelke

“Entwined” caught my eye this month by presenting a science fiction a few friends and I have been wanting for ages: far-future stories where motherhood—parenting, caregiving—matters. And it kept me with clean prose and an immediate set of conflicts: a parent torn between her two families, inevitably leaving one of them behind. That said, those conflicts aren’t always fully developed and realized in “Entwined”. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding from the implications and centering your worldbuilding around a point of view.

Especially when writing genres that have such strong tropesets, it can be easy to get caught up in which experiences count as a valid story: space battles, colonizing and decolonizing, exploration. However, the work of doing science fiction—and science fiction is a thing we do—is asking, and then answering, what if? It’s the art of implication: if so, then this, and then that would mean. And that extends to seeing how the universes we’d set up would impact our day-to-day, human activities: relationships, parenting, grief.

“Entwined” does this very well: taking the long-haul spaceflight future that we’ve seen in so many iterations and melding in the practicalities of living, loving, and parenting over distance in a way that isn’t just the stereotypical astronaut sobbing over their baby and then moving right on to the vast frontier (I’m looking at you, Interstellar). Elizaveta’s double grief is not always believable—I’m not sure how she wouldn’t have thought of her daughters for two whole years?—but it’s an interesting, nuanced problem. What does that trope of exploring alien cultures and being years away from home do to your relationships, really?

“Entwined” backs up that question with clear prose and some interesting work with imagery: Elizaveta and her milky Assam from a bottle, like a baby suckling milk; her acclimatization back to spaceflight paralleling her acclimatization back to a whole emotional life.

The characterization isn’t always quite even: Sawyer, most notably, at first vacillates a bit between treating Elizaveta’s second family quite seriously, like a friend of the (first) family; like a boss concerned only with job performance; and sometimes with teasing flippancy that feels at odds with both—and then she’s excited and amused over Xia and Sajid’s engagement, without any thought, somehow, of how this news is going to land on an Elizaveta facing the consequences of leaving a whole other life. Her reactions make her feel not quite complete as a character: I’d love to see more thought given to how Sawyer processes this information, her opinion on it, and how that informs her other actions throughout the piece.

The world is built out in small interesting ways—although I’d love, as a reader, to see those better embedded in Elizaveta’s point of view. Details like the explanation of Earth-Kea trade are mostly relevant to readers insofar as they affects Elizaveta’s trajectory through the story, and I’d suggest thinking about ways to introduce this information that send it through that lens, just like the long hair and the squeeze-bottle tea, built for zero gravity—illustrations of the gap between Elizaveta’s lives in space and planetside, and her alienation from that space/Caterin/etc. life. Tech is only so much as how people use it, and understanding how a science-fictional piece of tech or worldbuilding is relevant to the characters—and presenting it through that relevance—grounds readers in the world and builds a more unified experience.

Through that lens, I’m a little skeptical of the Entwined implant—it’s a narrative device, I know, and it’s the kind of narrative device that people would go for heedless of the consequences. However, creating an implant that lets you share emotions, but requires you to pull back every time you see a negative one—to only be there for your partner for the easy bits, and disappear on the hard or unattractive ones—is not a neutral statement. That says a lot about what people value in a relationship, about the strength of their relationships in the first place and their idea about how relationships work, and, therefore, how their relationships are going to go.

Other reviewers have mentioned that Ysoki’s motives don’t entirely seem to be examined in “Entwined”, but I’d argue that there’s not much ambiguity about whether the implant itself is exactly a good thing. And as a reader, I’d love to see a little more thought on that introduced, subtly.

The other place where I think “Entwined” could take on some polish is where Elizaveta fails to examine her own assumptions and motives. As the author’s notes guessed, the ending does feel abrupt, and somewhat out of place, and that issue ties into, I think, Elizaveta’s relationship with self-awareness.

Elizaveta and Caterin are in a deeply painful place, individually and together. This relationship was probably already in trouble, given Elizaveta’s inability to understand why her actions are hurting Caterin, and instead of talking—or modifying those actions to stop hurting Caterin so much—just disengages more and more. The comment about being the sensible adult Caterin always wants her to be leads me to believe this is clearly not her first piece of impulsivity, her first irresponsibility, the first time she’s left Caterin holding the bag. There are hints Elizaveta’s not exactly an emotionally mature person (besides, well, going adventuring while her partner single-parents impromptu for two years and ignoring Caterin’s explicit boundary of not wanting to see her—that’s stalking, you know) and this fight’s gone down between them before. And yet, even though that seems more core to the piece than the gaps between Keari and Earth cultures, Elizaveta ascribes the problems in her relationship to distance or Caterin’s conservatism—to a simple binary choice of engaging or not engaging—and never quite seems to look at herself.

I would personally love to see an ending that didn’t reduce repairing the conflict between them—or even beginning to repair it—to one person relenting and letting the other back through the metaphorical gate, to engagement versus disengagement. I would love to see an ending that treats a complex issue complexly, versus falling back on the put-upon spouse, the one who’s eaten all the pain through all this, eating yet more pain and letting the spouse who dealt that pain back in. I’d like to see a real grapple with this concept, one that treats it deeply. There are implications aplenty in “Entwined”; I’d love to see a version of this piece where they’re brought to life.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck.

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

When Dragons Wake, Chapter 37 by Cynthia Cloughly

It’s always interesting when coming cold to a later chapter, to see how much I can pick up from what’s there. And also, I freely confess, to figure out what I can say for an Editor’s Choice, that won’t run into the problem of, “It’s been spelled out in detail in the previous chapters.”

I’m particularly grateful for the concise, pitch-style summary that begins the submission. It tells me in general but clear terms what the book is about and what the author wants it to do. Well done.

So here we have a fair-sized cast of characters, an identifiably epic-fantasy-style setting, and a series of revelations and reversals. Viewpoint character Nikko presents as the reluctant hero with what appear to be gradually unfolding powers and destiny, in a world in which women are seen as inferior to men. She reveals a gift of necromancy—working a spell that no one expects to succeed—that proves immediately and poignantly useful. It’s a nice, chewy chapter that moves briskly forward, and establishes the characters for the cold reader and no doubt adds further layers for the reader who has come in at the beginning. The only thing I was expecting that I didn’t get was dragons. Phooey. But if the title is meant to be a guide, those do have a role or roles to play in the rest of the novel.

In terms of worldbuilding, the patriarchal culture and the hero who doesn’t want to be are classic tropes (and the hyphenated names—is this random or do the hyphens have a purpose as abbreviations or honorifics?), but the way in which Nikko reveals her powers here is a bit off the beaten path. It seems that apprentice mages practicing magic is a thing, and some people may disapprove, but others will aid and abet, and quite cheerfully in the case of the person who killed the rabbit. What no one expects is for the spell to work.

As a cold reader, I wonder if this is common. Do mages always fail? Is it unusual when a spell does work? Is magic unreliable, and if so, how does this affect the position of mages in this world? Are they like psychics in ours, with powers that not everyone believes in, but enough people do that they can find acceptance even in police departments and universities?

These are questions that are most probably answered in the rest of the novel. What’s here is a narrow slice of a big and complex pie. But one thing I do notice, and I wonder if it’s developed in further chapters.

What about necromancy? Evidently it’s not universally approved of, from what Nikko tells us about how long it took her to get permission to use the tower. She experiences the rabbit’s death, which shakes her considerably—so there’s a price for what she does. But for the rabbit, once it’s reanimated, that seems to be it. It hops off to continue its life as it did before.

This is the lead-in and setup for the big set-piece of the chapter, the mother who has died in childbirth and the child whose soul Nikko encounters in her trance and is compelled to restore to its body. The rabbit’s resurrection is a much simpler process; she controls it, more or less. But by the next round, the magic controls her. She can only do what it commands her to do.

Now I wonder if, in subsequent chapters, there will be consequences for the resurrected as well as for the mage. The question of fosterage is settled, and there’s an indication that the child’s relationship to her father and her grandparents will be complicated. But has her return from the dead changed her? Will she be a normal child, or has her strange beginning altered her personality, given her powers, made her something other than human? Nikko worries that she’s been born into the end of the world, but is she in some way involved in that ending—either to hasten it or to prevent it?

I’ll be interested to see if those questions are answered, or if the novel raises new ones that I haven’t thought of. Whatever happens, I’m sure this child means something, either in herself or as a symbol of what Nikko can do. Or maybe both.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Time Is The Fire, Chapter One V3 by Dylan McFadyen

Late in 2017 there was a bit of a run on authors taking down their chapters after I had pulled them for the Editor’s Choice but before I was able to post my crit. (Protip: Don’t Do That.) In the midst of this, one author asked me to look at a revision of the chapter I had reviewed in August. Normally we try to look at all-new-to-us chapters, but under the circumstances, with the author’s permission, I decided to give it a go.

This will not be a regular thing, but I thought it might be an interesting exercise. And so it turned out to be.

Both my EC and the original chapter have cycled off the site, but I remarked on the extreme precision and sometimes distracting detail of the worldbuilding, and the tendency for characters to talk about important events rather than experiencing them in the narrative—a technique I call “offstaging,” as in, important things that should occur onstage happen offstage instead.

The new version keeps most of the previous version. There’s a little less over-precision in the opening, somewhat fewer micro-details. We don’t usually stop to explain to ourselves what happens to the hardware and the software when we swipe a touchscreen, or to consciously analyze which fingers we use and how, unless it’s relevant to our interests. The same tends to apply to characters in fiction. We do get a little bit still enough to orient ourselves to this universe, but not so much that we’re distracted from the movement of the story. The revision moves more quickly as a result, and allows us to focus on the characters and their interactions.

The biggest change is a rewrite of a scene that, in the previous version, took place offstage. I am in favor of this. Exposition and offstaging are not always Awful Things Do Not Ever Do, but they work best in small doses. Mostly as a reader I want to be there in the moment, rather than hear about it at second or third hand.

So here instead of the Admiral telling the Captain about the big invasion force, we get to see it. There’s a bit of over-specificity again, a tendency to over-describe, but that’s easily enough pruned in the next revision. I’m much happier to have this new scene, to see through the viewpoint character’s own eyes, to feel his emotions as he realizes what’s happening.

There’s one more thing however that revision needs, and that’s smoothing over the edges. By this I mean that once the writer has tipped in the new scene, it changes the scenes around it, and particularly those immediately after. Deeper layers of emotion mean stronger or more complex reactions, and in many cases, changed reactions as well.

After Captain Aean has seen for himself what the fleet is up against, with the powerful emotions that this has evoked, he’s likely to carry some of those emotions through the discussion with the Admiral and into his conversations with his crew. Will he still make his “mirthless joke,” and if so, will he do it in the same way? Will his crew pick up the residue of his shock and horror? Will he try to hide it? If so, will he succeed or fail?

A strong scene like the new one will resonate. Those resonances carry on through the rest of the story, and affect scenes and actions later—not only those that follow directly, but later ones as well.

Emotions take time to process fully. When they’re amped up as they are here, it’s quite likely they’ll affect the character’s decisions throughout the rest of the novel. He might repress them and find them cropping up later, with important consequences for his conduct in the story, or he might release them in a rush and have to do damage control when he most needs to keep it together; he might say something he shouldn’t to someone who shouldn’t know, or not share with someone who really needs to know.

The possibilities are pretty much endless. So are the ramifications for the story. Here, it’s not a sharp turn or a strong alteration in the plot, but it adds depth to what’s already here. It makes the story stronger. The next step is to make sure the scene fits securely into the emotional landscape. A line here, a word there, may be all that’s needed to keep the ripples expanding outward.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

One Last Ride by Bill Mc

The beginning of “One Last Ride” grounds me in a believable, real-world situation.  Joe’s uncle has had a heart attack, and Joe must pick him up and drive him home.  Vivid description and some nice characterization draw me in and make me care about the uncle smoking when he’s not supposed to and Joe’s plans to work on his ’69 Mustang with his daughter when she gets older.  I believe in the relationship between Joe and his uncle, and I’m interested to see how their relationship changes over the course of the story.

For me, the story struggles to make the transition between its real-world setup and its supernatural climax, a common problem in horror stories.  As a reader, I’m much more interested in the setup than in the story about the Trader, the weird birds, and trading lives.  There’s not a clear and compelling connection between these elements, so many of the details established in the setup don’t seem relevant to the climax, and the climax doesn’t seem to build on the characterization and emotion that’s been established.  While the setup feels rich and believable, the climax seems familiar and unemotional.

Before I offer some suggestions, I want to discuss another difficulty I had with the story, which was confusion.  I’m not sure what trading of lives is going on.  The examples about “choking the life out of your own spouse” or slaughtering “the neighbor’s cow” suggest that one needs to kill another to live.  It’s not clear to me that this is what happens in the story.  After my first reading, I looked back at the story and thought that the uncle had probably died with his initial heart attack (that sent him to the hospital) and offered Joe’s life in his place.  But then the uncle seems to die again while they are speeding down the road.  And why does the uncle suggest they speed?  It seems like he wants to kill them both.  Is it after the uncle’s second heart attack that he offers Joe’s life?  And does he need to kill Joe to live again?  Since the uncle is already revived before Joe dies, is there a time within which the uncle must kill Joe?  It’s not clear to me that the uncle runs Joe down, which I think is what needs to happen if the earlier description of the Trader is correct.  The car seemed to run him down on its own, because the uncle never gets into the driver’s seat.

The uncle says, “I traded my life for yours, but he tricked me.”  I don’t know when this happened or how.  Since the uncle is near death, why would the Trader take such a bad trade?  And in what way did he trick the uncle?  All of this seems overcomplicated, so it leaves me wondering about rules and details rather than feeling the horror of a character dying.

Then it seems like Joe trades his daughter’s life for his own, so he can live and his daughter will die.  I’m not sure if that’s what you intend, but that’s how it reads for me.  But Joe seems to have no emotional reaction to his decision.  And I don’t know why he makes the decision he does.  I thought he loved his daughter.  I feel pretty lost at the end.

Perhaps what you intend is that the uncle offers his life so Joe can live, and Joe offers his life so his daughter can live, but that’s not what the Trader seems to be about from the examples I quoted above, and that’s not how the story reads.  Once someone has had a heart attack or been run over by a car, he’s not in any position to offer his life for anyone.

So how can the setup and the climax be better connected and provide a satisfying, unified experience?  First, I think both Joe and the uncle need to be more active in pursuing their goals and to have some power to achieve their goals.  Right now, both characters seem powerless, so the premise of being able to trade one life for another seems meaningless.  If the Trader is tricking and controlling, then mere mortals have no choice.  The uncle says, “He controls us.”  If that is true, then writing a strong story about these characters is very difficult.  As it is, Joe starts with the goal to drive his uncle home.  He becomes afraid of his uncle once the uncle comes back to life after the crash, and his goal becomes to flee.  He unwisely flees down the road, so the car can easily run over him, and then makes his decision quickly and without thought or emotion.  I think to work well, the story needs a three-act structure.  For me, acts are defined by the protagonist’s goal, with a new act beginning when the protagonist forms a new goal.  Driving his uncle home is Act 1.  There’s not really a strong Act 2 or Act 3, because Act 1 takes up most of the story, and then Joe doesn’t have time to pursue any additional goal for an extended period of time.  He’s only fleeing for 2 paragraphs.  If there’s another goal of saving himself (or his daughter), it comes and goes very quickly with that decision.  Since the driving/normality takes up so much of the story, the fantastic/climax seems to come too quickly and not be well incorporated.  In a three-act story, generally speaking, Act 1 is usually about 25% of the piece, Act 2 is 60%, and Act 3 is 15%.  Of course a story can deviate from these rough estimates, but this can give an author a sense of how his acts compare to the average, and let him know where he might need to use various techniques to compensate for less standard structures.  If this is to be a three-act story, then either the section in which Joe’s goal is to drive his uncle home needs to be significantly shortened, or the story itself needs to be significantly lengthened.  I think some of both could be good.  What would the three acts be? There are many possibilities.  Here’s one.  In Act 1, Joe’s goal could be to drive his uncle home.  After a smoke break, the uncle convinces Joe to let him drive.  He crashes the car, killing Joe and gaining another lifetime for himself.  In Act 2, Joe’s goal (as a ghost) is to kill the uncle and get his life back.  Perhaps he’s able to possess the uncle’s wife, who we know has some mental illness.  Perhaps she’s in contact with the Trader and that’s why she’s believed to be mentally ill.  This would help tie an element from the opening into the latter part of the story.  Perhaps Joe is able to kill the uncle, but instead of this bringing him back, it brings back the aunt’s mind, so she is now a whole person.  And perhaps she’s super evil, in love with the Trader, and perhaps Joe’s wife and daughter come to visit the aunt to console her over the death of the uncle.  The aunt wants to kill one or both of them to extend her life, or to allow her to give the Trader human life so they can be together.  Joe’s goal is now to save his wife and/or daughter.  So that’s one way that this could be developed into a three-act structure and connect the elements of the setup more strongly to the elements in the climax.

One final area to consider is the causal chain of the plot.  The plot should progress like a row of dominoes falling over.  One thing causes the next, which causes the next.  This gives the reader the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference from the author, and that the character’s actions have consequences.  This also allows the reader to anticipate what might happen and feel suspense over it.  Right now, the causal connections between events and actions are unclear, so the story isn’t able to build too much suspense.

The story has some nice description, setting, and characterization.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Bird’s Eye by RM Grave

I was drawn to “Bird’s Eye” by the dense, luscious language and the sense that this piece was something ambitious: a shot at a David Mitchell-style nested, interconnected-universe structure in short form, relying on flights of prose, imagination, and style to try to do something that feels entirely new. However, it’s both standing and somewhat wobbling on the core element of craft it’s using: voice. So this month, I’d like to talk about voice: both narrative voice, the voice of our characters, and how we approach experimentalism—what we do with our own authorial voice.

Voice is not a flimsy thing for this particular workshopper to rely on, and I’m not surprised that I enjoyed the prose in “Bird’s Eye”. I’m always fond of this particular author’s prose work, and there are beautiful turns of phrase here: the universe, which sides with the magpie alwaysIf emotion rules our world, then stories are its militia. And I say to you: if wild-terriers come for me tonight I will feed them my heart first. If tabby-cats, then I will dig holes up and down my belly and have them suckle blood. The prose here is frequently just breathtaking, with a great understanding of cadence, image, rhythm. It’s a firm foundation for an experiment, one that’ll carry a piece through.

And there’s good prose work—and voice work—throughout, but work that’s not entirely yet controlled. While the overdramatic, melodramatic, operatic is definitely a part of the first protagonist’s voice—and I would not ask her to be less catty and loud and yet thoroughly and vulnerably human, because she’s difficult as hell, but she’s lovely in her complexity—I found this piece a bit overdense, overgrown in places: for example, there are easy trims in “its fried chicken. My fried chicken. (A bird that never flew, by the way, until I flung it across the polygon of limp grass and dog-do after it failed to provide me with the dot of pleasure I had hoped for.)”—the repetition and the aside aren’t necessarily adding something here, I think—or “Sweetness for my bitterness” and “against all that wants to pull me down into the ground beside you” and “The collective noun for men is an ‘actually’. An actually of men”, which have all already made themselves implicit by the surrounding lines.

There are at least a double dozen spots like this where “Bird’s Eye” would, I think, benefit from some trimming back in the less important places, so that the turns of phrase which describe something emotionally significant, which are heartbreaking, have a little more air to grow.

With the switch to the second section—we’ll call it smile section—there’s a layer of complexity added to the experiment: differentiation of characters’ narrative voices becomes a factor.

We don’t always spend much time differentiating between what we mean by authorial voice and a protagonist’s narrative voice; they’re elements of craft most people describe more by feel than by a set of parameters. I’d suggest a personal theory: to look at voice as a set of consistencies. What common elements, quirks, tricks, do readers look at to know, going in blind, if a story is you?

Those consistencies throughout a story are important—but putting some difference and stretch in them matters when we’re writing different narrative voices in the same piece. And “Bird’s Eye” doesn’t quite hit the balance, for me, of differentiation and consistency. There are a few too many telling consistencies to truly feel as if the second section is narrated by someone different than the first: the list-making, the tonality, and—even with the comparative spareness of this narrator’s voice versus the last one—the rhythm of the prose. That question of prose rhythm is definitely about the author, rather than the narrators, and it’s something that will probably take a conscious effort to alter; that’s your voice coming through.

What I’d suggest to solve this problem is not to reduce consistencies, though, but to make the consistent parts of the narrative rely on different elements of craft: notably, the symbolic/thematic and the structural. I think we can tend to balance our stories on our strongest element of craft, but spreading the load out over different elements of craft balances them better, just like adding a few more legs to a chair.

There’s already work being done there: the continuous thread of the magpie, grief, and coping. I’d suggest putting more of a spotlight on those structural elements: the idea of three interconnected universes, ruled by either emotion, intellect, or behaviour, is so emotionally unsaturated compared to the rest of that protagonist’s grief that it doesn’t stand out to me as something important—and it’s the key to the whole story.

As a small thing, I’m also thinking of ways to make the story loop—the do at the beginning—a little more obviously deliberate. I’d suggest maybe setting it off on a separate line? I initially thought it was a typo, and while that’s a misconception that’s lovely to upend in a workshop setting, it might go over less well in print.

Experimental fiction is always going to hit a few more obstacles than something that’s, in terms of technique, working more well-used territory. I’d suggest being patient with this piece: especially with dense or ambitious stories, it’s not uncommon to solve one problem and find you’ve unearthed or inadvertently created another, and then have to rebalance the entire piece again. The patience and work is worth it, though: It’s an interesting experiment always, seeing if we can stretch ourselves into a space or technique.

On a final note, regarding authorial voice: There’s a tangible and decided influence to “Bird’s Eye”: The smile section is a pure David Mitchell future, and the progression of mimetic world to dystopian to post-apocalyptic—and transcendent—is very familiar from Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.There’s nothing wrong per se with taking a run at structures another author has demonstrated. It’s in a lot of ways how we learn: by trying it out ourselves, and seeing which pieces of another person’s toolbox fit in our hands, and which aren’t actually interesting. But, and but: I think I’m personally more interested in what an R.M. Graves experiment looks like than whether R.M. Graves can do a David Mitchell experiment. Sometimes the most valuable thing we can make is that which is off-the-wall ourselves—which is entirely our own authorial voice.

So: There are solid ways to make “Bird’s Eye” a better expression of the David Mitchell trick. But, during further drafts of this piece, I’d ask you to keep an eye out for those individualities: What trick is your own, and which of these tools fit your hands? And then: What might you make of them, when they’re entirely yours?

Best luck!

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