Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Fantasy

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

The Broken Vessel Chapter 1 by Ravenna Corvin

Usually when I read an unfinished ms., I recommend that the author finish it before worrying about line edits. So much can change between the first draft and the final, and fixing lines and words can take up time that might be spent working on larger structural issues. It’s all too tempting to spin the wheels forever in the first few pages, and never quite make it past them.

That being said, when I made this Editor’s Choice selection I knew I’d be looking at the line-by-line. When we read a chapter at a time, that’s the most obvious thing we can address; the larger structure is harder to extrapolate. Therefore I’m going to issue my Standard Disclaimer: There is no wrong way to write a first draft, however you get the words down is just fine, and don’t worry about the finer points until you have the whole thing in front of you in whatever form it needs to take. What I say here is by way of “keep this in reserve for later” and “worry about it after you’ve completed the draft.”

I chose this submission for this month’s Fantasy Chapter Editor’s Choice because as much as it may need copyedits and polish, it’s got great bones. It presents a world both rich and strange, a set of characters I would be interested to hear more about, and the promise of a plot that will unfold through intriguing twists and turns. I want to know who the protagonist really is, what secret she’s hiding, and where the developments of this chapter will take each of the people we meet. I’m particularly taken with the rule of signs—that only the royal family can speak aloud. The signs themselves are vividly imagined; I can see them in my mind as they’re described.

All of these lovely elements will be even stronger with a solid copyedit and some careful proofreading. The draft shows signs of what will be with figurative language that occasionally sings: Voices, Ilph’s invisible companions, whispered in her mind — restless, paranoid, spiteful.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here:

Back straight, chin raised, eyes piercing, Emperor Tigal floated over the Polis as though hovering.

Floating and hovering are more or less similes. Perhaps just say he’s hovering? Or floating?

Words get out of control here and there. She’d more likely clutch the neck of her robe than the neckline; black eyeliner is spelled kohl rather than coalThe surrogate he used in favor of giving her a name seems to mean something like “the sobriquet he used instead of a proper name.” I’m a bit confused by the saliva that turns into a viscous paste. Usually in that emotional state, my mouth dries out and I can’t generate any saliva at all. Or, as happens with Ilph, I’ll choke on bile. Here too, when ire marked his face, a sort of leashed frustration, the connotations aren’t quite on point. Ire is anger; it’s not particularly controlled or leashed, and it’s a different and stronger emotion than frustration.

Sometimes it’s useful in the final copyediting pass to take a sentence apart and make sure the different sections connect in the ways they’re meant to. In this passage

Long metal spikes stabbed through the woman’s arms, legs, hands, and shoulders to keep her suspended.

I had to read through a couple of times to connect the spikes and the suspension; it might have been clearer if the sentence had read something like, “The woman hung suspended from long metal spikes that stabbed through her arms, legs, hands, and shoulders.”

When she drove her mouth into an apathetic line, the concepts didn’t quite mesh for me. Apathy is limp, passive. Driving is a little too strong, and not exactly apposite. Perhaps a less vehemently active verb here—flattened, perhaps, or compressed.

I’m not sure about the visual of His forehead wrinkled, the lines coming to a head between his eyebrows. It’s very precise, and it repeats later, so seems to carry some significance, but whatever that is needs to be made clearer. Or just say he frowned? That seems to be what he’s doing. (There’s a tendency of late to misplace the frown to the mouth. It’s actually a forehead gesture, and the sentence quoted here describes it.)

I’m a little bemused by the repeated image of a character shifting weight between his feet. It reads as if he’s built like a bird with very short legs and a proportionally large body that essentially sits on top of his feet. Presuming that he has human proportions, is he shifting his weight from foot to foot, sort of bouncing back and forth?

In a fantasy as atmospheric as this one, with such strong emotional ebb and flow, it’s important to pay close attention to the nuances of words and phrases. Words should mean what they’re intended to mean, and the connections between them should be clear and cogent. It’s a good idea to pay attention to which words and phrases repeat, too.

Every writer has a tic, a tendency to come back over and over to particular words and phrases. The tic can vary from work to work, but there’s always something that keeps cropping up. In this chapter, it’s eyes acting independently of the people they belong to. Eyes trace, roam, trail, examine, jump. They’re lined with kohl, they’re full of menacing threat—a duplication that can be pruned to one of the synonyms, menace or threat. Rethinking some of these, finding other body parts to focus on, and shifting the agency from the eyes to the person who owns them, will sharpen the imagery and make the writing more active and vivid.

As I said above, these are all suggestions for the late phases of revision, when the novel is complete. In the draft stage, the priority is to get the words on the page, to sort out the characters and get the structure of the plot working well enough to move everything forward.

There’s plenty of time later to hone and polish the prose. For now, my best advice to just get it done. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And yes, I would read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Science Fiction

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

Ammi’s Broken Vase by S.Z. Siddiqui

Flash fiction is an art unto itself. To tell a complete story in as few words as possible, without sacrificing any of the elements of good storytelling, takes both guts and skill. Every single word counts.

“Ammi’s Broken Vase” ups the ante by working in two separate timelines, builds a world and a complex set of emotional conflicts, adds in literally breathless tension, and does it all in under a thousand words. I salute the author; even in draft, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

I’d like to suggest a couple of ways to make the prose even leaner. The structure of the story, to my eye, is sound; the transitions between the timelines might be a little smoother, but overall it moves well into and out of past and present. There are a few places where paring and streamlining may help with both pacing and narrative flow.

The question I always ask when I line-edit, whether it’s my own prose or a fellow writer’s, is: “Is this word or phrase absolutely essential? If I take it out, will the story make just as much sense? Do I really, really need it?” I also ask: “If I do need this word, is it the exact right one?”

In the final paragraph, for example, do we need to know that the steps are blue? Do we need the word “foyer” or the viewpoint tag “She knew” or are these concepts implied in the rest of the sentence?

Repetition of words, phrases, and ideas can be an effective rhetorical device, but in a flash piece, the rule of less is more tends to apply. A sequence like this

She passed out drunk at Kulsoom’s house. When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV with no ulterior motives, Lubna resolved to drown herself in the red wine she brought.

might be condensed into a single, shorter sentence:

When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV, Lubna passed out, drowning herself in the red wine she’d brought.

Sometimes when we want to keep the word count down, we may condense multiple ideas into a long phrase or string of phrases—packing it all in as tightly as possible. The effect can be a bit crowded, as in the last paragraph: Her lungs almost escaped with the air they expelled as the first cough erupted. There’s an almost songlike quality to this sentence, but it’s a little hard to parse. Opening it up and rearranging it, even adding a word or two, would make it clearer. This might even be an occasion to wield a familiar phrase: she’s literally coughing up a lung.

The overriding concept of flash fiction is focus. Focus on the point of the piece, focus each word and phrase, choose effects with care. No excess; nothing superfluous. It’s wonderful how a well-conceived flash piece—and I think this one is; I love the theme of the broken vase, and the world in which breathing is anything but a natural or simple process—can do so much with so few words. It’s a kind of magic.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Horror

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

Salt by Billy Palmer

I was happy to find your story here. “Salt” shows us a unique, striking world filled with mystery and magic that is beyond understanding. Some strong sensory details, such as the buzzing cicadas, the croaking bullfrogs, and Sheena’s black teeth, help to put us in this world. Salt is an interesting character, and his relationship with the zombie-like Maguire is quite intriguing. The story draws me in to trying to understand what has happened with Salt and Maguire. I get a strong sense of people struggling to function alongside powers far beyond their control.

I think the story could be improved in several ways. The first-person narrator’s goals are seldom clear, which makes the story feel slow at times and feel as if it is being manipulated by the author rather than driven by the narrator. The narrator’s goal in Act 1 is the strongest; I think she wants to save Maguire. But I don’t know what she thinks she needs to do to save Maguire, and I don’t feel her struggling to save Maguire, so the narrator’s actions feel random. She seems to be killing time waiting for something to happen. If we knew from the beginning that Sheena had told the narrator that brewing tea from the herbs and making him drink it every day would save him, then I would share the narrator’s outrage when Maguire dies. As is, I don’t know what she’s expecting or how she thinks she’s going to get it, so I can’t feel suspense or anticipation or surprise. We need to have expectations and to see events following some sort of causal chain to be able to feel suspense, anticipation, or surprise. Sheena seems to promise only transformation, and the narrator doesn’t seem to believe in this possibility, so I don’t know why the narrator is in the forest or why she’s brewing up the herbs.

When the protagonist’s (in this case, the narrator’s) actions seem random rather than directed toward a goal and don’t follow a clear causal chain, then it feels like the author is making things happen. While, of course, the author makes everything happen, the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own and the characters have agency. The narrator seems to have no reason to wander and find the path of white sand, since she should be brewing the herbs, and saving Maguire is her goal. If she had a reason to leave Maguire–to find water to brew the herbs, for example–she could find the path of white sand and the reader could feel there’s a good reason for her to do so. Many of the narrator’s actions could profit from being reframed so that her goal causes her to do them.

The story also sends us a clear signal that the narrator has interrupted the normal process of life and death in the forest by breaking the salt circle in which she finds Salt. That seems to lead to Salt being an unfinished version of Maguire, unable to fully take his place, and I think this also leads to Maguire not being absorbed back into the forest and instead having a zombie-like existence. This is the most important action in the story, and it seems to occur by chance, not for any strong reason, and the narrator never reacts to it. It would be better if this had a strong cause, and if it also had strong consequences, such as the narrator going to Sheena and asking if she can finish the process or fix the broken circle. The problem of the broken circle also needs to be explicitly raised in the story, otherwise it’s not clear that it is the cause of Salt and Maguire being as they are, and those things seem random, meaning manipulated by the author.

Once Maguire dies, the narrator’s goal to save him becomes moot, which is fine, but no clear goal arises to move us forward into Act 2. The narrator rubs resin on Maguire’s teeth, following Sheena’s instructions, but I still don’t know what she’s expecting. If she’s expecting him to transform or come back to life, why does she leave the body? If she doesn’t think he’ll come back to life, why is she rubbing the herbs on him? The narrator returns to the village run by Sheena, even though she hates Sheena, and she doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve any goal. If, instead, she was trying to get Sheena to fix the broken circle and finish the process, she would have a strong goal that is part of a chain of cause and effect. Sheena could refuse; the narrator could try to force her; the conflict could escalate and the stakes could rise.

The most exciting part of the story for me involves the narrator being trapped in a salt circle, to be transformed into something else. I don’t fully understand it, because I thought humans had to be fed to the forest, not put on stumps to become statues and then other people. So the magic seems inconsistent there. But the situation is disturbing and suspenseful. Yet the narrator gets out of it too easily. Sheena knows that Salt and Maguire are around; why wouldn’t she anticipate them freeing the narrator? Why wouldn’t she just kill the narrator and feed her to the forest? Or if she’s not threatened at all by the narrator, why wouldn’t Sheena just knock her out and walk away? If Sheena is angry because the narrator upset the salt circle with Salt inside and ruined the cycle, perhaps she’d do something to try to right the situation. Maybe she’d try to kill all three of them, since Salt and Maguire are results of a process gone wrong and the narrator is responsible. So Sheena’s goal and motivations could be thought out more, the causal chain could be clearer, and once the narrator is in danger, it could be more of a struggle for her to get out of it, if she does at all.

Perhaps, if Sheena is partly successful and the narrator partly joins with the forest and the death gods before gaining her freedom, she could use that power against Sheena, and her goal could be to defeat/kill Sheena in Act 3. Right now, she returns to town with the goal to do something to Sheena, but that seems to shift as the story progresses. First she wants information; then she wants to reveal Sheena as a fraud; then she wants to run away. None of the goals lasts long or requires much struggle, so this is not a well-formed act where suspense builds. Also, since the goal for Act 2 was unclear, it’s not clear that we’re now in Act 3. Making her goals clear for each act will add excitement and suspense.

For me, the ending wasn’t satisfying, since the narrator and her companions escaped without much difficulty and Sheena and the death gods continued as before. The ending might have more power if it showed the narrator had been unable to escape the situation and had been irrevocably changed by it. Perhaps she takes Sheena’s place. That would be more disturbing for me.

That brings me to my last point, which is the horror element. While I enjoyed the dark magic, I never felt frightened by it. Some moments could profit from dilation–slowing the pace by describing in intense, vivid detail–so we feel entrapped in those moments. For example, when the narrator is sitting on the stump and being encircled with the salt, that moment could be slowed down more, so we could really feel the narrator beginning to transform and sense her connecting to the forest and the death gods.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere the story created, as well as the world and the magic, and there are some very nice descriptions. I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Short Story

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

Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water (Part 1 OF 2) by Peter S. Drang

“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” intrigued me, this month, with its quiet, slowly spun tension and how it makes a whole plot out of simple human behaviour against an almost blank canvas. It does a lot with very minimalist lines, but once answers arrived, I found myself feeling unsatisfied. So this month, I’d like to talk about ambiguity in fiction and how we answer the questions our stories put forward.

“Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” immediately deploys a strong, palpable sense of atmosphere: simple, unelaborate, but almost surrealist. The disconnect between the unhurried calm of the exit test and the countdown, its growing sense of threat, is a highly effective source of narrative tension; the parallel of the clock ticking down, the clear blue sky as the group turns on each other feels focused in all the right ways—a demonstration of how the four survivors will, even without outside active threats, eventually destroy themselves. It’s the eerie simplicity of Eastern European political fiction, in a SFnal framework.

There are smaller tweaks I’d suggest: shortening the terms-setting scene between Corgan and the Proctor to aim for verisimilitude over exacting detail. The point of the scene as I read it is Corgan’s exactitude, his conviction that he’s covered all the angles, and I think it’s possible to convey that in a shorter, punchier scene; as it stands, the quibbling over details moves the scene from caution into dragging the pace.

I’d also suggest taking out the visual pauses in Corgan and Madrigal’s conversation: it’s known they’re talking between Bullog’s breaths, and the visual static it creates distracted from the story from me, instead of adding to it.

The third thing is the Shofnowsky poem. It has a function as almost a structural timekeeping device, but there’s a risk in including invented poetry in fiction—namely, that when we cast something as famous poetry, it has to stand up to that assessment. I’d suggest getting some poetry critiquer eyes on it, and suggestions as to how to make the poem work more strongly, or trimming it back sufficiently that it does its structural job but doesn’t make that extra work.

However, my main concern in the ending: ultimately, the resolution falls into territory that feels, to me, a bit typical—in the formal sense. For most of its length, “Perfect Blue Sky Over Clear Water” is a suspension in an interesting situation, and it progressively develops certain questions about challenge, human nature, and crisis. When that narrative waveform collapses, though, it collapses into a kind of story, not this story: hubristic scientists analogized to gods, mothers out for revenge, gloating implanted poetry, a very Twilight Zone-style escalating-string-music oh-no reveal. The understatement that’s characterized the story throughout takes a sharp turn into melodrama. The threat has been, throughout, the group tearing each other apart—”There had been no trap in this place after all. The trap was our own nature, ourselves. Inescapable.” Suddenly, the threat is external manipulation by the Proctor after all—petty torture that was going to accomplish nothing all along—and everything the story’s achieved thus far is undermined.

Why?

As an answer, I’m not sure the twist of the current ending does the setup—the question—justice. This is an answer to Corgan’s predicament, to the pressures of trying to survive communally in a situation filled with guilt and blame, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for “actually, this is all revenge against which they are powerless” to be the answer: nothing in the thematic arguments, the questions that the story is asking that makes them a satisfying or contiguous answer. Twists can be an interesting surprise, can be shocking, but only if they add up in a way that satisfies the central narrative question the rest of the story’s set up. Otherwise, they’re just discontinuity. The feeling, for me, was a bit like seeing “How do you effectively lead people through a crisis after failure?” answered with “blue cheese”. The end has so little to do with the middle on the thematic level, and having seen it so many times before, I don’t find reducing a whole story to human pettiness with no chance of any growth for anyone especially interesting. The ending, as written, renders the entire read pointless.

So the main suggestion I’d have for this piece would be to ask: What could the why of this story be if it wasn’t a punchline? What is a more interesting choice of answer, one that fits more closely and derives more strongly from the questions it’s actually asking? Which answer takes the questions the story was asking seriously?

It’s not a category to be rated on OWW, but there’s a lot of value to be found for us as writers in cultivating a strong sense of our own subtext—or to put that into plainer terms, learning to identify from the patterns in our own work the questions our stories are asking. Find the questions—think about what the story is saying, asking, what it’s about—and it becomes easier to find an ending with the right fit, by answering or addressing those questions in a way that’s interesting: thoughtful, funny, different, emotional, profound. But for a satisfying ending, the story’s questions by and large should, I think, be engaged in good faith.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Fantasy

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

Postcards, Act 1, Part 5 by Liz Coleman

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this submission, and some interesting and engaging characters. I like the fact it’s an f/f romance, with the tension of the current lover versus the late and lamented one who may not turn out to be dead after all—but who may not be alive, either.

A couple of things strike me as I read through the chapter. They rise from a similar source, and addressing them will help with the pacing and the overall structure of the narrative.

The first is the tropism toward internal monologue. Very tight viewpoint is particularly prone to it—first person or, as here, third person limited. We’re living the story inside the main character’s head, and experiencing events as she experiences them. She spends a fair amount of time thinking about what she’s doing, what she plans to do, what her options are. She’ll ask herself rhetorical questions:

Suzy Lou was a bright and shiny distraction into the dangerous unknown. But a distraction from what? What did she have? Making medicine for sea elephants, maybe?

A little of this can be lively and engaging, but it can slow the movement of the story to a halt while the character talks to herself, particularly if she’s asking herself rhetorical questions. It might be more effective to turn some of the internal discussion into dialogue, to develop some friction that moves the plot forward.

But there’s a pitfall in dialogue, too. Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do, including develop character and conflict, convey information, and advance the narrative. For the most part it needs to be tightly focused. It has to say enough for clarity, but not so much that it drags down the pacing. It should explain, but not overexplain. It’s a balancing act.

The dialogue in this section wants to do several things. It’s developing the relationship between Loretta and Suzy Lou. It’s rounding out backstory and pointing toward the next portion of the narrative. It conveys important information and introduces a twist or two.

What it tends to do in this draft is explain and summarize rather than dramatize. It’s dialogue as synopsis. Here for example:

“Maybe she’s alive, maybe she’s dead, but I need to know. And while I don’t want to hurt you, I do want to help you, and I think you’d rather have an adventure and be loved than hide from pain. I want to keep being around you. I want to face danger with you. You say the Misties can marry a human and become a world-crosser, well, I want to marry you and do that for our people. Isn’t a little pain worth something bigger?”

There’s a whole lot of story-stuff here. Opening it up, giving it air, exploring the different themes and conflicts, will make the story stronger and give the characters and their interactions more depth. If Hazel is alive, how can Loretta contemplate a new marriage? What does Loretta feel about loving two people at once, especially since she’s been mourning one of them for dead? How does this new knowledge affect her on a multitude of levels?

Meanwhile Loretta is telling Suzy Lou what Suzy Lou wants—not pausing to let Suzy Lou speak or act for herself. The marriage proposal comes on all at once, without buildup. It’s just suddenly there, and Suzy Lou is like, well, huh. OK. Sure. Party! (Which is an interesting insight into her psychology and presumably that of the Misties in general.)

Watch for these draft-habits when making notes for revision, especially the tendency for a character to tell another character what she’s feeling and thinking. Let that character say it or, better yet, show it. Let them interact. That’s where the story is, and where character development happens.

Tension and suspense grow there, too, as do emotional arcs. Dialogue is a part of them, but it needs to be more truly interactive, with more back and forth. Let characters speak and feel and react for themselves. Let emotions build and decisions develop. Instead of having Lorretta or Alice tell us what’s going to happen, let us see it happen.

It doesn’t need to be lengthy or complicated. Just a line here and there will often do it. Shift focus from explanation to drama, from character telling to scene showing.

The same applies to backstory. Think about how to weave it throughout the narrative, and how to hint and tease here. Give us what we need to know in this particular moment, but it’s all right to leave some ambiguity, to let us discover new information more gradually. A little mystery can keep the reader reading, and build anticipation as she picks up clues along the way.

In short: Slow down a little bit. Open up the explanations into (concisely) dramatized scenes. Give the characters room to react as well as act and talk, but at the same time, pare and prune the internal monologue. Let the dialogue really earn its keep. Then your story will flow more smoothly and your characters will have a chance to shine.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Science Fiction

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

Zombie Rock Stars by Bobby Harrell

I can see why the Author’s Note indicates that the finished story will have a different title than “Zombie Rock Stars,” but I have to admit, that’s what caught my eye first as I made my Editor’s Choice picks for this month. It’s not a fancy title, but it’s evocative.

It is a spoiler for the plot surprise. On the other hand, sometimes a reader will keep reading because of the spoiler. It’s a different kind of experience: anticipation rather than unfolding revelation. Even knowing what the punch line is, the reader is eager to find out how the story will get there.

That’s how I read this submission. I figured out what the ending would be as soon as I got the parameters of has-been journalist and classic rock star, knew it when I saw the security measures, but read on with relish because the idea was so much fun. What might have added to the fun for me would have been a line or two about rock immortals—Keith Richards, anyone? Especially since the story is set in 2039. He could conceivably still be alive by then, but it would be a bit of a stretch…unless he’s had the treatment, too. But that’s not essential to the story–there’s plenty there to keep me reading.

As for the story itself, I’d recommend a thorough copyedit of the final draft before submission. In this draft, the verb tenses and T.J.’s gender both fluctuate in ways that point to revision artifacts rather than author planning.

I found myself wondering about the worldbuilding as I read. The  background in general has a feel of 2019—few changes, nothing that stands out as saying This is the future. Just think about how different 2009 was from now—over the weekend I was watching a TV series on Netflix from 2010, and the phones were downright ancient in size and design. In 1999, plots could revolve around people hunting for a pay phone, because everybody didn’t have a phone in his pocket, let alone one that was also a camera and a powerful computer.

For a short story, there doesn’t need to be a ton of worldbuilding, but one or two background details would go a long way toward establishing the futureness of it all. Small everyday things that nobody thinks about. Instead of a phone, for example, what if Jared is told to turn off his phone chip (which, it might be implied, is implanted in his head or arm)? If he’s given a pad and a pen, does he know or remember how to use them? Does he try to find the save button on the pen, or look for the power switch on the pad? I find myself doing that now when I’m reading a book—I look for the timestamp at the top of the page, and sometimes I try to turn the page by tapping it. Habits form fast and die hard.

The draft also made me think about how dialogue works to establish character and advance plot. Real-world dialogue doesn’t work in fiction because so much of it is throat-clearing and social filler. Very little of it introduces new information or moves a story forward. Introductions, hello-how-are-you-how’ve-you-been-how’s-the-wife. Telling each other things the reader would already know from previous scenes. Explaining things that are clear to the reader from context.

The best story dialogue conveys information that’s new to the reader, while establishing the personality (the voice, both literally and metaphorically) of the person speaking, and clarifying her relationship to the person she’s speaking to. It’s generally concise, and it cuts away once it’s conveyed the information the reader needs to know.

Jared and T.J. clearly have catching up to do, but all we need to know as we read is that they do this. A line or two about how they swapped updates would do the job, and leave more story space to build up to the climax. In short: the pacing would be quicker and the climax punchier.

It’s perfectly fine to write it all out in draft. Getting it down on the page or screen makes it clearer what can stay and what needs to go. Just keep what’s new, what’s essential, and what’s most effective. And, in this story, that will help the humor as well: sharp, biting wit and the final Ahhhh Shiiiit that we (well, I) have been looking forward to since we saw the working title.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Horror

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

To Accept The Things We Cannot Change by Bobby Harrell

The idea of accepting “the things we cannot change,” when applied to people bitten by zombies, is pretty haunting and disturbing.  That really kept me thinking after I finished the story.  The story uses familiar elements, but juxtaposes elements not often seen together, giving this story a fresh feel.  This is a good technique to use to create originality.  Last night I watched the movie You Kill Me, which juxtaposes hitman/crime elements with alcoholism/recovery elements, creating an original story.  This story, by combining alcoholism/recovery elements with zombie apocalypse elements, also creates an original story.

The general shape of the story seems solid.  The opening makes us think we’re in a standard zombie tale, so the turns the story takes–Larissa discovering she’s taken shelter with alcoholics in the midst of an AA meeting, and then discovering they’ve all been bitten by zombies–are pretty surprising.  Ending with the key idea, as also stated in the title, helps to give that idea impact.  So the premise, theme, and structure all work pretty well for me.

Other elements didn’t seem as strong.  The characters don’t seem to behave in a consistent or believable way.  For example, Clayton and Neil seem to be arguing to let all human beings in, yet they aren’t letting in zombies.  Why not?  Aren’t they human beings?  Don’t they deserve safety and comfort, in Clayton’s and Neil’s opinions?  A page after arguing to let everyone in, Clayton is calling the zombies “sick bastards” and arguing against interacting with them.   So his ideas on this seem contradictory to me.  If he is intended to be contradicting himself, then we need a character to call him on this, so it doesn’t seem like a mistake.  Larissa, for example, could easily raise this point.  If he isn’t supposed to be contradicting himself and zombies aren’t considered human, then that point needs to come out.  It’s not clear now, so I end up pretty lost about what the AA members stand for and what the precise nature of the conflict is.

While the AA members claim to want to provide shelter for the suffering, they don’t even keep watch for people outside who may be suffering and need shelter (or do anything more active to find survivors and help them to the shelter).  They ignore pounding on the door until Tate calls out for help.  This makes their statements about helping others convincing.

Larissa’s actions and decisions are also hard to understand and believe.  I’m pretty much with her up until she remembers the incident on the bus.  I get pretty lost there.  It sounds to me as if the bus came upon a group of zombies who started to break into the front door, and those on the bus tried to get out the back door.  Then I think Larissa helped an old woman get out the back door.  Yet the story, and Larissa, treat this as if she did something bad and, more than that, that she acted like a zombie.  I don’t know what she did that was bad, and I don’t know in what way pushing a woman toward a door is acting like a zombie.  Then Larissa was seemingly bitten by a zombie, though I don’t know how or when that occurred.  After that, I think she went home, looked in the mirror, and thought she looked like a zombie.  I don’t understand what that means, specifically, and I don’t know how she could be a zombie then and not a zombie after that.  So this key section, which leads to Larissa’s epiphany and change, is unclear, and because of that, has little emotional impact.

I also don’t believe the revelation that she’s been bitten.  We’re in her point of view and she knows she’s been bitten, so we should know too.  We shouldn’t only learn about it when she visually reveals it to others.  It’s always problematic to withhold key information from the reader that the point of view character knows.  The reader feels cheated by the author.  I think we could see Larissa being bitten at the start, and see her hiding the bite when she sees the shelter.  That would add tension to the story.

The confusion over what happened to Larissa on the bus is part of a larger issue, which is that the rules by which zombies exist in this story are unclear.  Accepting “the things we cannot change” and having “the courage to change what we can” has no clear meaning when we don’t know what those things are.  For the premise and theme to have power, we need to know what they mean, their implications, so when we read that final line, it will strike us like a thunderclap.  That means knowing how a person turns into a zombie, roughly how long it takes, and whether there is any way the process can be stopped.  For example, if shooting yourself or someone else in the head can stop the transformation, then the “courage to change what we can” seems like it would involve all of them shooting themselves or each other.   Is that what Larissa is accepting at the end?  Or is she accepting something else?

A few other quick points.  This story involves a major realization and change by Larissa, which means that her character is an important part of the story.  To believe her change (convincing the reader of significant character change in a short story is one of the most difficult things to accomplish), we need to have a strong understanding of her character at the start, to see her growth or internal conflict developing, and to see the causes of the change.  But this story is focused mainly on action and dialogue, and the action and dialogue provided doesn’t carry much subtext, which could provide insights into the character.  So Larissa seems mainly like a stand-in for the reader, someone with the typical desires a typical person would have in this situation–safety, survival.  The last half page suddenly provides additional information that makes Larissa seem very different from what we’ve thought, and when we look/think back over the story, we don’t see much evidence to support this different view of her (at least I don’t).   So this feels like the author forcing the character and the story in a new direction, rather than the character and story developing as it naturally would.  I think either the action and dialogue need to carry more subtext, giving us a richer sense of the character, or the story needs her point of view (her thoughts and perceptions) to be more fully developed.

Finally, I think some of the details in the story could be better chosen.  Some details contribute to the confusion.  For example, this description–“The chairs around the scratched white folding tables were a mix of steal folding chairs and plastic diner stools on wheels”–makes me picture about 7 tables and 28 chairs, most of them filled.  It takes me a long time to realize that only 3 people are living in this building.

In other cases, the details seem excessive and distract from what’s important.  For example, this description–“he was deeply tanned, had perfectly brushed back white hair, a grey droopy mustache and wore a green plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans”–seems to include a number of details that aren’t significant (the droopy mustache, the fact that his shirt is green plaid and his pants are blue jeans) and doesn’t point me clearly toward what’s important, which in this case, I think, is that Clayton seems untouched by the chaos outside.  The fact that he’s deeply tanned sends me off on a tangent–does he have a tanning bed?  Has he been to Florida recently?  The white hair suggests he’s elderly, which never comes into the story.  I think you might say, “He was the first person she’d seen in clean clothes in a week,” and that would convey something significant.  If you want to give us a more specific image, you could say something like, “His plaid shirt and jeans struck her as strange.  Then she realized they were the first clean clothes she’d seen in a week.”

The story has a really interesting, unique combination of elements and the potential for a big impact at the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Short Story

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

Shrinking by Taliyah St. James

“Shrinking” caught my attention this month through its incredible thematic work, its emotional intelligence, and the way it puts a persistent genre trope through the kind of intersectional examination that creates stakes, investment, and impact. So this month, I’d like to talk about how multifaceted takes on a theme and wider context make our characters’ choices meaningful, and why we can get more character connection out of specific, richly-characterized protagonists than more loosely-drawn blanker slates.

The core idea of “Shrinking” is one many genre readers have seen: a dystopian, financially oppressive future where poorer people sell their very feelings to the rich to survive. It’s in the thoughtful, multifaceted, deliberate, and deft execution of that idea—the specific story “Shrinking” builds upon that idea—that it absolutely shines. The thematic idea it’s working with—poverty, what different versions of poverty are on a nuanced and systemic level—is woven through every paragraph.

On the plot level, “Shrinking” is a story about a woman, historically and in terms of class location better off than her partner, who walks to a feelings-selling clinic and chooses her old lifestyle over her relationship. On the barest level of plotting analysis, it’s a straight line. But on the thematic level, that walk and that choice comment on and reflect an infinite, rich, horrific, detailed context—and become more than they are, because of what “Shrinking” loads into that choice.

“Shrinking” is a story about poverty, privilege, and class, and it situates every single character in that framework immediately through the work of little details. So many offhand comments show how Aimee’s more affluent assumptions and habits persist: leaving the water running, resenting the house for not regulating it for her, not remembering the names of her neighbours, the secret-splurge manicures, legitimately not understanding Mrs. Washington’s reaction to her before they all get screened by security and Aimee, light-skinned, walks right through, thinking poverty is not having the latest phone. And bigger ones, too, like Aimee’s family considering her lifestyle a “phase” and the refrain of “it’s expensive to be poor”. Everything builds that context on multiple levels, subtle or explicit; every detail feeds, in a way that feels organic, into the river that is its main thematic idea.

The advice of “show, don’t tell” is a bit of a cliché at this point, and it’s been worked over in many ways, but “Shrinking” does an incredible job at showing—demonstrating—who Aimee is, where she’s from, and how she fits or doesn’t fit her current environment and relationships. It allows readers to pick up on how her actions and attitudes align with what she’s saying—or, more importantly, where they don’t, and lets the author communicate important information about this character, this world, our world through those disjuncts. Aimee doesn’t always understand these gradations, but readers can—which creates a tension and interest in the scenes where she’s just in transit, because the conflict between Aimee’s perspective and the narrative’s is a source of readerly fuel.

But the context widens further: Depicting Aimee as a nuanced, complicated person occupying only one position in the bucket of positions that all qualify as “poor”—and depicting other positions in John and Mrs. Washington—does an incredible amount of narrative work. The conflict that drives the story—her love for John versus the gap between their assumed normals that she isn’t really willing to bridge—is brought through at the same time the story’s thematic core comments on how poverty functions structurally in our world, now, today, at the same time as the worldbuilding avoids didacticism or flattening by showing multiple versions of similarly grouped experiences. And this happens at the same time that every detail contributes to Aimee’s characterization, making her a round, complex person—a very specific person, living a very specific experience.

One of the failure modes of dystopia is, I think, the flat landscape: a simplified world where X is good and Y is bad, and one situation fits all—when life is not ever like that. In reading “Shrinking”, I think this piece is a good example of how, while seeing oneself and one’s own situation in a story can be a good connection point for readers—and lead to the temptation to draw characters who are as assumed-generic as possible so readers can project themselves onto that character—empathy or emotional recoil over another’s specific situation, recognizing not the circumstances that caused it but the feelings of love and trappedness and misunderstanding and resentment that are part of it, can be an even better connector. It hooks readers into the space where, for this person, in this moment, everything is this choice. It illuminates spectacularly for the reader how they feel.

So by the time readers reach the explanation of the procedure—the stereotypically technical explanation, near the end—the action has been weighted with so much social and emotional significance that it’s no longer about what it’s about. How the Shrink works itself becomes a symbol of the conflict Aimee feels between her assumptions and expectations and what is legitimately a real, pure love; it’s the culmination of every piece of context the story has offered us so far about what Aimee and John’s life is, the structural barriers of poverty, race, assumption, social censure, personal shame, desire, and mid-belonging she lives in. It’s not even close to a flat choice. So that explanation—the stereotypical explanation of how the Shrink works—becomes the narrative equivalent of the slow click of a rollercoaster going up the hill, ready to drop.

When it drops like inevitability, the impact is terrific.

There are at least a thousand more words I could write on why “Shrinking” functions so very well, how deftly it handles its material, how the very idea Shrinking hinges upon—of running out of money, so making yourself smaller to fit—rings brutally true and familiar. It’s an incredibly well-crafted piece of work, one I think is ready to go to editors, and I very much look forward to seeing it in print.

Best luck!

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

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