Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, 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 Sharp-Edged Detritus Of Broken Words by Marion Engelke

Lately I’ve been happening across submissions that trend toward the all-the-details end of the draft spectrum. This is a thoroughly valid process, and can result in beautiful, rich and layered fiction. But in revision, the emphasis will be on pruning and paring away the extra words to uncover the structure of the story.

This time I’ve opted to look at a submission that falls on the other end of the range. It’s lean and honed and totally pared down. There’s nothing extra; everything that’s there is meant to be there.

“The Sharp-Edged Detritus of Broken Words” holds together with exquisite precision. I didn’t miss any information about the dragons within the context of the story. Everything worked for me; some aspects were implied rather than explicit, but the implication was clear. This is a good example of how to choose just the right details, and the reader pick up the rest.

My questions about the worldbuilding are fascination-questions, rather than “I’m missing this from the story” questions. I love the idea of dragons singing languages into and out of existence, and turning written words into edged weapons. It’s gorgeous. I wanted to know where the dragons come from, whether they show up everywhere in the same year, where they go in between, and why the period is so precise. And who figured out what they do, if everyone’s mind and world are so altered? What happens to the trove of salvaged books? Is it always one scholar who saves them? Does she pass on her knowledge? Is someone or something controlling the dragons? Is there a reason for what they do? And what about people in their houses? How do they protect themselves against the word-shrapnel? What is the process that alters everything about them? What does it look like, feel like?

So many questions, but that’s a sign of success. The worldbuilding is so tight and focused and pointed, but there’s so much underneath. I want to know more. I want to see more of this world, and understand it better. And at the same time, I’m content with what I see in this one story. It covers what it needs to cover.

One thing I would suggest, since this is so tightly written and so precisely constructed, is to really, really watch the way the words fit together. It’s always important to hunt down and kill infelicities of grammar and syntax in one’s writing, but they’re particularly important in a story as concise as this.

I noted that prepositions sometimes wander out of bounds, or idioms don’t quite parse. For example:

tips and tricks of what to plant when and where, of what to do

The more common idiom would probably be for rather than of.

a burgeoning fruit and vegetable patch behind the house was going a long way for keeping food

And here, toward would be the more standard usage than for.

Rosa passed under the row of iron spears of the portcullis into the city’s unnerving silence

This is what I call a prepositional pileup. It’s maybe trying a shade too hard to be concise. Opening it up and separating the phrases would make the meaning a little clearer and the flow a little smoother.

What in all that’s holy are you doing here?”

The usual phrase is “in the name of all that’s holy.” I kind of like the shortened form here, but it might catch a copy editor up short.

Everybody moved in a flowing, gliding gait

Here again, there’s a sort of logic to it, but the idiom is more usually “with a flowing gait.”

And finally, here’s a bit of story-blocking that made me stop to figure out the visual:

The voice sounded from her right. Rosa flinched and jumped to her feet. A woman stood in front of her

The voice is coming from the right but the woman is in front of her?

These are really quibbles. Structurally and conceptually the story is lovely. I want to see more—to know what happened when Rosa went home—but I’m satisfied with the amount of story that I’ve been given. It’s rounded; it’s complete. I have enough information to imagine what happens next. The important parts are all there. The rest is a lovely silence.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, 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.

Vamp, Part 2: The Years We Waste by David Busboom

Writers often talk about voice without really knowing what it is.  A weak or inappropriate voice in an otherwise strong story can destroy it.  A strong voice can make us love a mediocre story.  Voice is the personality of the character as revealed through his use of the language.  That means voice is the cumulative effect of many small decisions on the part of the author, which explains why it can be challenging to control.  While voice is important in all fiction, it is most important in stories told in first person.  In first person, the character is usually speaking directly to us, telling us his story.  In real life, some people make you want to sit down and listen to their stories, while others don’t.  In large part, this is due to their voice, their personality, the way they tell a story.  A narrator’s first-person voice needs to show readers that being a good storyteller is part of his personality.  The narrator needs to have interesting, fresh observations that allow readers to see events in a new and compelling way.  Those are the qualities that can pull readers in and keep them turning the pages, even when nothing earth-shattering is happening.

The first-person voice in Vamp draws me into part 2 without even having read part 1.  The voice feels believable and consistent (convincing me this is a real person talking to me), and it flows well–the narrator, Dave, is a good storyteller.  More than that, the language reveals to me that Dave is educated and reflective, and that he has a mix of influences ranging from popular culture to archaic lore.  These qualities make his observations, thoughts, descriptions, and reflections precise (which allows me to vividly experience them), interesting, and sometimes compelling.  That is a major strength of this novel excerpt.

An element in the excerpt that could be strengthened is the causal chain.  The causal chain is made up of the cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  A simple way to create causality is to make sure actions or events are connected with “therefore” or “which leads to.”  This happens, therefore this happens, which leads to this happening.  If the cavalry shows up to save your heroes but no one called the cavalry, and we’ve never seen the cavalry before, we’ll feel like the author is manipulating the story.  Of course the author is manipulating the story, but readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.  The causal chain is critical for this.  The causal chain not only helps the reader to believe in the story but is also critical to create suspense and surprise.  Suspense involves anticipating and worrying about what might happen, and we can’t do that if events are happening randomly, only if there are causal connections.  Surprise involves things happening other than the ones we anticipated.  That can’t happen unless we clearly anticipated one thing, and something different happened instead.

It’s easiest to create a strong causal chain when the story takes place over a short time period.  If Jane slaps Sarah and, five seconds later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s pretty easy to see the causal connection between these two slaps.  But if Jane slaps Sarah and, five years later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s harder to believe these are connected.  The fact that Sarah is slapping Jane at that particular moment feels random.  Why wouldn’t Sarah have slapped Jane sooner?

Part 2 of Vamp occurs over an extended time period, which makes it difficult to create a strong causal chain.  In part 1, Dave has an awesome sexual experience with Lilith when he’s 16.  It’s so great, it haunts him for years to come.  So why is it that when he’s 20, he decides she’s evil and goes back to the house where they had sex to kill Lilith?  The cause (motivation) for this actions seems weak.  An owl crashing into his windshield prompts thoughts of Lilith and a dream, and that sends Dave on a big research project to learn all about Lilith and then to try to find and kill her.  The first break in the causal chain is the owl.  Why does this owl crash into his windshield?  Why on this day?  It seems manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a causal chain of events.  Then why, after all these years, does an owl prompt the dream?  And why does the dream prompt his decision?  Lilith asserts, in the dream, that Dave wants her more than his girlfriend.  But is that really a reason to embark on a huge research project about Lilith and to kill her?  I don’t think the intensity of their relationship/conflict has built to a point where he would be driven to kill her.  He seems to decide to kill her mainly because his research reveals Lilith is evil.  That seems a very abstract reason to kill someone, especially for Dave, who doesn’t seem to be a demon hunter.  This undercuts our belief in Dave and the plot.  It also seems like this research ought to reveal to him that Lilith isn’t someone who can be killed with a revolver, though this is the weapon Dave brings.

Several years later, Dave’s obsession with Lilith increases.  We’re told it happens because he’s engaged and his father dies, but neither of these causes seems sufficient to cause this effect.  He realizes that none of his sexual partners had matched Lilith.  I think he would know that while the sex is happening and not suddenly realize it years later.  When he’s suddenly obsessed with sex with Lilith and goes so far as to try to conjure her for sex, it’s not convincing.  The story needs a stronger causal chain.

One thing that would help is to condense the timeline so events happen closer together in time.  We also need the effects to be more in line with the causes, so we can believe Dave would do these things and we can believe his character arc over the novel.  If sex with Lilith is the best ever, then I think he’d go back to the house constantly hoping for more.  Perhaps he goes every week for a year, and then every month, and it’s always deserted.  Throughout this time he researches her, and perhaps he finds a number associated with Lilith in legend, and he thinks if he goes that number of times to the house, she will come.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with Elizabeth.  Now he has an internal conflict between his obsession with Lilith and his love for Elizabeth.  He still wants to go back to the house on his usual day of the month.  But perhaps Elizabeth wants to do something with him on that day and he lies and tells her he’s busy.  He can tell that she knows he’s lying, and he’s upset about losing her trust.  When he goes to the house, he’s now angry over Lilith’s hold on him and upset over how he’s treating Elizabeth.  He knows he must make a decision.  So he burns the house down.

But burning the house must have an effect.  Every event should have a cause, and every event should have an effect. So maybe he sets the house on fire, but as he does, he “gather[s] up paper scraps” to add to the flames, and he finds something that increases his obsession rather than putting it to rest.  He could find photos of her naked, or diagrams of a ceremony that might summon her, or an address where she might be.  Thus burning down the house would lead Dave to his next attempt to connect with Lilith.

With a stronger causal chain, Dave’s actions and other story events will be more believable, and we’ll feel more suspense and surprise as one thing leads to the next in ways that keep us on the edge of our seats.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the excerpt with its strong voice and description.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey




Editor’s Choice Review August 2017, 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.

Froggy and Willie Chapter 3 by Sue Wachtman

Humor is hard to do. It needs balance, it needs timing. It has to know when to pull out the stops and when to give the reader a breathing space.

I give this writer huge props for aiming at classic kid humor and succeeding, at least for me. A good copyedit and a judicious amount of pruning and tightening will make the prose even better, but the big picture works.

How does it work? By walking the narrow line between over the top and just too much. That’s an art and a gift.

Willie is a hoot. She’s just awful, but she’s so unabashed about it, and so completely cold-hearted, that she’s almost lovable. She has a Plan, dammit, and she’s going to execute that Plan, and that is most emphatically That.

But there’s a hint of change coming. Froggy is her opposite in terms of verbal acuity, self-confidence, and overall moral fiber (or lack thereof). He’s already smoothing her rough edges and making her see herself more clearly, but he does it in a way that doesn’t make me feel as if I’m being preached to. There’s an organic feel to their interactions, and a sense of timing—both comic and  emotional—that makes it work. The way they play off each other is deft and quick; it lingers just long enough to get the point across, and moves just fast enough to keep from bogging down.

If I were to quibble, I’d wonder if Froggy could repeat himself a bit less, and if the conversations between them could be tightened up. He repeats himself, that’s his thing, but just a little less of it would help keep things moving along.

What strikes and charms me overall is the sense of kid logic that runs through the story. Willie’s amorality and utter selfishness is pure kid, but so is her slow awakening to the existence of others in the world—and her very gradual realization that they just might have feelings, too.

I love the way she turns the fairytale trope of the beautiful princess on its head. She’s clearly got the face, but not the voice, and that’s something she’s alerted to in this chapter. She’s also quite willing to make herself ugly if it serves her purpose (and I wonder, though this may be made clear in the previous chapters, whether Granny abets her plan in order to foster the kind of self-awakening that’s happening here). Beauty is a tool for her, but she’s not invested in it. It’s not absolutely essential to her identity. At bottom, with all her considerable flaws, she’s Willie first and foremost. With or without blackberry teeth.

And that’s pure kid, too: eeuuww gross and therefore funny. She breathes licorice at you, she gives you hives. She’s toxic but she embraces it. It’s almost too much, but it stops just short.

And may I salute the pro-frog messaging in a genre that so often defaults to prejudice against frogs (and toads and snakes and spiders). Froggy is very pretty frog, and Willie makes sure to mention it more than once. Again it doesn’t strike me as preaching; it fits the characters and the situation. But it counteracts the propaganda that we’re fed in kidlit and in our culture in general.

One note on genre labeling: It doesn’t feel YA to me, but middle-grade or even chapter book. The clarity of it, the broad strokes of characterization and action, and the overall voice and tone, give me a younger vibe.

I like this a lot, and wish it well as it makes its way out into the world.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review August 2017, 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 1 by Dylan McFadyen

Here’s a chapter of nice, chewy, detailed science fiction with a space opera vibe and some solid prose. A lot of thought has gone into the background and the worldbuilding, but the characters haven’t been shortchanged. They’re setting up for what should be an interesting mix of interactions and interrelationships.

I don’t get a sense of a murder mystery here so much as a classic, almost Clarkean interstellar conundrum: Who is the mysterious corpse and what is he to the humans in their starship? Less a question of whodunit and more whatisit.

One thing that might help is a clearer pointer in the first chapter to the murder or the murderee—a shift of focus that puts the murder more in the foreground. I also wondered why the chapter has date and location but the prologue doesn’t. Adding the tags would help the reader get the sense of how prologue and chapter relate to one another, even if the relationship isn’t clear for a while.

I find myself wondering if the prologue happens before or after the first chapter. Is the character dead already when the narrative proper begins, or is this the story of how he died? Just a hint would give me a direction to follow as I read.

In terms of of style and execution of the chapter, I had a couple of observations.

1. Worldbuilding to the fore. The profusion of detail tells me how carefully the world has been built, but past a certain point I found it distracting. Is it essential for me as the reader to know exactly how and with which finger Aean backscrolls, and exactly what the mechanism is for doing so?

I did the same thing with my phone just now, minus the hook-in to my cerebral cortex, but I wasn’t thinking about it while I did it. I just did it. Sometimes I do wonder what the exact mechanism is, but when I do that, it’s a thing in itself. It’s not something I’m thinking about while I’m doing research or carrying on a conversation.

There’s a place and a time for reflections on process. When they’re directly relevant to what’s happening in the story—say he uses the usual finger and gets a completely different result, and this causes Issues related to the plot—then as readers we need to know what the process is. But if the story is going somewhere else, then the process isn’t in our need-to-know. It bumps the plot off its rails.

In revision, maybe ask what the reader needs to know. What absolutely can’t be left out? Then layer in a few additional details for enrichment, in places where there’s a pause or a breathing space, or where they’ll sharpen the focus of a character or a scene. With the finger bit, for example, if Aean has a tendency toward hyper-focus, and he zeroes in on what he’s doing, then has to pull back in order to carry on his conversation—that’s character development. Even better if his momentary distraction leads to a revelation later, or a plot-moving event that originates in the movement of a finger.

2. Offstaging. This is my term for key action in a narrative that happens offstage, while the narrative consists of characters talking about the action either before or after it happens. When it’s used sparingly it can be really effective, because you get perspective on what happened or is about to happen. But for the most part, offstaging moves the reader away from the direct experience of the story. Especially when it happens early on, when we’re getting a lot of exposition, the story loses impulsion. It slows and stalls, and we’re separated from it by a filter of people we haven’t yet come to know, and action we can’t participate in.

Here I’d have liked to see some of the situations we’re told about. Maybe direct narration, maybe a concise flashback. Maybe the characters are getting a news feed or an alert, something that gives us a more visceral emotional punch.

While it’s amusing to see Aean in his bathrobe, does it need to take up as much word count as it does? Would the story be stronger if we’re closer to the action? If instead of Singh’s report on the Kyran fleet, what if we get to see it firsthand—or if it’s important to maintain distance from the action, Aean gets to see the raw footage of the Kyran fleet in motion? How much of the details of his orders do we need at this precise point? Can some of them be revealed as the story advances?

In a first chapter especially, the reader needs to be wooed and allured and tempted. She wants to get to know the characters, and she also wants to feel as if she’s a part of the action. That doesn’t mean every story has to start with screaming and explosions. Not at all. But the sooner the reader gets up close to what’s happening, the more likely she is to be caught up in it. And then she’ll stay to find out what happens next.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review August 2017, 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.

Ghost Walk–Revision by Paul Taylor

Three things draw me into this story immediately. First, the title and the opening paragraph’s development of the concept of the “Ghost Walk” get me interested in how this tourist-type activity could become frightening. While I’ve read plenty of stories about amusement parks or weird museums becoming scary, I don’t think I’ve read one about a historical ghost walk becoming scary, so this seemed new and intriguing to me. Second, the writing feels assured and focused, diving right into the Ghost Walk, referring to the Ghost Walk as “it,” because the author knows we have read the title and will know what “it” is. This shows me the author will not over-explain and will allow me to figure things out on my own, which will make the story engaging. Opening with the statement, “It seemed like harmless fun” suggests to me that this writer is setting up an ending in which the walk will cause significant harm. As a reader of horror, I’m excited by this, and again this signals to me that I’m in the hands of a good writer. Third, over the first two paragraphs, the voice of the first-person narrator suggests a character who has some animosity toward his girlfriend/wife, who enjoys asserting his dominance over her. This suggests depth to the characters and the relationship, making me believe this story will not just be about scary ghosts but also about scary people, and that the flaws of the narrator will have an impact on the outcome of the story.

Of these three initial impressions, the first two turn out to be accurate and pay off through the rest of the story. The story does show me that this Ghost Walk is frightening, describing it in a vivid and fresh way that makes me feel afraid and provides the thrills I’m looking for in a horror story. The writing generally remains strong throughout. But the third impression I formed at the beginning turns out not to be accurate, and I think this is one way the story can be strengthened.

The voice sends me many signals that the narrator has a somewhat hostile attitude toward his unnamed girlfriend/wife, whom I’ll call Jane for ease of reference. In the second sentence, he thinks, “At worst, it might result in a nightmare or two for her.” His treatment of this as no big deal suggests either he doesn’t care or he wouldn’t mind if she had some nightmares, which seems quite cruel. In the second paragraph, he admits that taking her on the Ghost Walk is about asserting dominance over her. He explains she is easily frightened and doesn’t enjoy that, but then admits he jumps out to frighten her and finds her screams hilarious.

Unfortunately, all this character building leads nowhere. The narrator’s animosity doesn’t show up during the Ghost Walk and has no impact on the action. Instead, the narrator seems to become a bit condescending toward Jane, thinking she needs his shoulder to lean on and she needs him to take charge and “get her moving.” The condescending attitude again seems to have no impact on the action.

Both the animosity and the condescension seem inserted into the story simply to justify the behavior of the characters. Because he likes frightening her, he takes her on the Ghost Walk. Because she’s weak, he has to take charge, so the main part of the story can focus on his thoughts and actions, and she can be treated generally as an appendage who thinks and does the same things he does.

I think the story is missing a great opportunity. Strong, consistent characters could not only involve us more in the story but also create compelling complications by showing the interaction of character and supernatural. Right now, the characters seem largely the puppets of the author. They go on the Ghost Walk because the author says so, and they go the second time because the author says so. I don’t really believe they would choose to do these things. One way to take advantage of this opportunity would be to bring out the narrator’s hostility toward Jane more strongly, so I know that he’s taking her on the Ghost Walk because he’s angry at her about something and wants payback. He wants to scare her. Then as they go through this stressful experience, it could bring out the characteristics in Jane that the narrator doesn’t like, and bring out the narrator’s hostility more. For example, he could take some action to scare her near the climax, bringing on some disaster. That would allow the narrator’s character to have an impact on the outcome.

I do question, though, why Jane would be with him or why she would go along with this Ghost Walk, knowing that he likes to frighten her and knowing that she doesn’t like to be frightened. Jane’s character needs to be developed in a way that makes this believable. More than that, I’d love to see her developed with some depth, so there can be more interesting interaction and conflict between Jane and the narrator, and so we can have a contrast in how Jane reacts to the horror and how the narrator reacts to the horror. Right now, they become almost a collective entity when they go back for their second walk, which weakens the story significantly.

Another possibility would be to change their characters. Perhaps they both like frightening each other and are constantly trying to get the best of each other. Maybe they’re siblings rather than husband and wife. In any case, it would be really nice to see more interaction between character and supernatural, so the characters are reacting in interesting, distinctive ways to the horror, and that affects the horror and changes the outcome.

The other area where I think the story can be significantly strengthened is the ending. I really enjoy the shining blackness, but the characters easily escape it, and the entire experience seems to have little effect on them. We’re told they “carry scars” and are “changed,” but we don’t see that. Ultimately, the story seems like a minor episode in their lives–they see something scary and run away–that hasn’t had much impact. This was very disappointing to me.

Again, I think the story provides a great opportunity for a stronger ending. I love the idea that they stop at a coffee shop and it feels like “a different world, almost like we were watching a movie.” This is only told now, not shown, so it doesn’t have the impact it might. Instead, this could be shown through vivid sensory details. Exactly what seems strange, and what is the nature of this strangeness? Perhaps the narrator senses the glowing blackness underlying everything, which provides this false, movie-like brightness to everything. Maybe Jane sees it; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe the narrator sees the glowing blackness in Jane’s eyes. Maybe Jane jumps out at the narrator when he comes out of the bathroom, scaring him, and we realize the characters have now exchanged roles. In any case, I’d really like to see that the characters are profoundly changed by this experience, and I’d like to see that they haven’t escaped the horror. That would allow the story to create a lingering, haunting resonance.

I hope my comments are helpful. The story feels fresh and well written, and it kept me involved throughout.

—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review July 2017, 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.

The Calico Project – Chapter 1 by Christine Berman

I like the depth and detail of the worldbuilding in this chapter. There’s been a lot of thought put into the setting and the background, and the cast of characters is already large, with lots of complex connections.

As I read, I kept coming back to two things that I think would help the story work better.


Noss does a lot of running from place to place on deadlines. First to find the missing professor before the shuttle takes off, then to make it to her anniversary celebration, and finally to escape from the murderous intruder. All of these actions are constructed on a framework of urgency, but the accumulation of details slows it down.

Science fiction loves its exposition, and a well-built world invites a fair bit of it. The writer’s job is to keep the story moving while the world unfolds within it. But story movement and the characters’ physical movement are not necessarily the same thing.

Noss runs around while the story takes place elsewhere. In the beginning, there are two things happening: the cheerful ruse to get her home in time for her anniversary celebration, and the discovery that her research has finally produced results. Both, logistically, take more than fifteen minutes to play out, and she’s external to both. Her partner is the one who concocts the ruse, and the Professor on the ground and Malia on the space station tell her what she’s been doing and how it’s succeeded.

What if all of this activity were rolled up into a tighter scene, in which Noss gives the reader a view of Earth and her purpose there, discovers for herself that her project is a success, all while rushing to get everything locked in before her apparent deadline—and then learns that the deadline is Alam’s idea? This would speed up the pacing and put Noss in the middle of the story-action. And then we’d get the laughing reversal of, “Oh! Alam’s pulled one on me.”

I thought for a while that Alam was the shuttle pilot, but he appears to be doing his thing elsewhere–it’s a bit confusing. Could he be the pilot? Would that work in terms of who he is and what he does for the station?

Once on the station, having rushed to get there, Noss slows down. There’s no urgency really. She focuses on work without thinking of Alam at all, then when she’s reminded, she informs Malia (and the reader) that he’s out on a flight, so there’s plenty of time to get some work done.

What this does is show the reader that what’s presented as urgent is actually not. The tension ramps up, then when we get to the payoff, it turns out there isn’t any. It’s a trick to make sure Noss gets home in time, but once she does, she doesn’t need to be there for hours.

The same thing happens in the final sequence. The potential is tremendous: an intruder on the station impersonating Alam, a handful of characters with speaking roles killed, Noss apparently next in line. But when the intruder reaches her, all he does is tell her to run. The stakes weren’t high after all. She’s not in actual danger. She runs away and locks herself up safely in her quarters.

Narrative pacing has its ups and downs, its fast gallops and its breathing spaces, but in this chapter, the deadlines pile one on top of the other. It’s possible they can end in a pause, as Noss takes stock of all that’s happened, but the action up to that point should move along briskly. It escalates from “must find Professor and make the shuttle” to “intruder on station, innocents killed.”

Keeping up the pace means tightening the timeline not only in the opening sequence but in the middle one, when Noss arrives at the station. If she gets there, expects to meet Alam, but runs into the intruder instead, there’s no slackening of tension. The expository bits can be sketched in as they’re needed, but quickly, to keep from impeding the movement of the story.

Speed is the key here, and it needs tight plotting, which includes tight writing. A lot of description, a lot of adjectives, slows the pace and weakens the suspense. The time for those would be in the quiet zones, the intervals of slower movement in between the action scenes. This first chapter is very much an action scene.

The second thing I would think about is Character Motivation. This includes emotional arcs and characters’ actions and interactions. On the most basic, word-by-word level, there are some odd physiological descriptions that might bear rethinking: Noss’s heart thrashes, her stomach flutters, her chest compresses, every muscle locks and freezes. This seems intended to convey high emotion, but as a reader I kept stopping to try to figure out how these things are physiologically possible, or in the case of the chest compressions, to disentangle the image from the medical term.

Images can be vivid and unusual, but their meaning should be clear, and their emotional affect should match the overall level of the scene. The same applies to characters’ words and actions. When Noss forgets about Alam after she arrives on the station, on the one hand it’s clear she’s married to her work, which is solid characterization, but on the other, she’s here at this particular point because it’s their anniversary. That would logically stay on top of her thought processes even if she does have time to get to work before the party. If she then gets lost in her work, that makes more sense–and Malia could remind her, “Hey! It’s almost time for your date!”

The intruder’s arrival is shocking, and the deaths of her neighbors should hit Noss hard. So should the fact that he’s impersonating Alam. I think she would deduce that something has happened to Alam, and rather than running to her quarters and hiding, would try to get as much information as she can, as fast as she can, about whether he’s still out on patrol and whether he’s safe. Then she would use that data to either find him if he’s missing, or alert him if he’s away from the station.

I would also wonder why, having killed several inhabitants including a child, the intruder lets Noss go. Why doesn’t he kill her, too? Even if that will be explained later, here I think she would wonder about it, and be emotionally affected by it. Might she be grieved and/or angry about the child, guilty that she’s still alive, and frantic about Alam? What other emotions might tangle themselves up in her, and what might they motivate her to do? Would she try to protect the station? What about her work? Would she want to make sure that’s safe, either before or right after she’s checked on Alam?

There’s a good story here, with good bones. I would read on to find out if Alam is all right, and if the station is undergoing a larger attack, and what Noss does about it and how it all comes out.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review July 2017, 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.

Blood, Glass And Sugar- Chapters 1-3 by Lyndsay E Gilbert

I have a soft spot for high-school fantasy adventures, and an equally soft one for mss. that bubble gently on the back burner till it’s time to slide the cover off and see what’s cooking in there. Here we have both, which for me is a win. With bonus title-that-makes-me-look-twice. As a reader I’ll want to know what the title refers to, and why those particular things (blood, glass, sugar) are important to the story.

The author’s note mentions a wish to avoid “cliches.” What I’d like to do here is talk about something a bit different, which is tropes.

Tropes are the broader category of which cliches are a subset. Every genre has them. They’re elements that help to define the genre. If a reader sees a particular trope or combination thereof, she can be pretty sure of what she’s going to get in terms of plotting, characters, and story-stuff.

The challenge for the writer is to walk the line between elements a reader wants to see in the genre, and elements that the reader has seen too much of. The devil is in the details: the combination of characters and events that make up the story, how these characters and events are portrayed, and how it’s all written: the choice of words, the emotional arcs, the ways in which these unfold. There has to be some element of freshness in the tropes, a little bit of surprise—but not too much; past a certain point, conventions shift from bent to broken, and the reader feels as if the author is messing with her. The trick is to respect the conventions even while offering a new take on them.

Here we have the school, the dance, the hard-working and vulnerable young student, the Mean Girls, the tough girl, the popular boy, the cool stepmother, the old curiosity shop, the wicked old witch, the magic mirror, the shady bar, the even older and grottier shop, the gang of evil beings, the undertone of werepeople and vampire-type people and faery-type people…and that’s just the first three chapters. The signal these send is that this is a school story, this is fantasy, it’s probably urban fantasy, and it has distinct fairytale elements. We may also be seeing some vampires and werewolves, from hints in the descriptions of the characters (notably the queen of the Mean Girls).

The ms. could benefit from a line edit to catch the word- and phrase-level wibbles and bobbles, the repetitions, the over-and-overs, the words and phrases and bits of conversation, but the first question I would ask is, “How can I streamline my story?” By this I mean, are there too many things going on in these chapters? Can I pare them down and focus on just a few, and grow my story out of those?

If we tease out the different threads, we’ve got Evie and her problems at school, Evie and her friend, Evie and her stepmother, the two shops, the tattoo, the explosion and its consequences, and the mysterious bad guys. While it’s important to establish the character and setting at the start, again it’s a balance between too much and not enough. There’s a lot going on here, and it can be hard to follow.

How much of the school sequence do we absolutely need at the start? Do we need all the details of what Evie is doing, what her school assignments are exactly, and the multiple encounters with the Mean Girls? Can all of this be condensed into one, tight and focused scene, perhaps in the car park, with Louise to the rescue?

The key I think would be the destruction of her art portfolio—but all we may need of the opening scene is a mention of why she’s late at school, how she drew the raven, then she and Trix confront Bella and company. Perhaps Louise and Farez arrive in time to break it up, and off they all go? Or better yet just concentrate on Louise, and show Trix heading off to her own ride, without getting overly specific about the who and what.

The same applies to the shopping sequence. Could the two shops and the space between them be combined into one? If Louise is enchanted by the mirror, can Evie be lured into another part of the shop for a tattoo (perhaps moving the raven to this part of the story), then bad things start to happen, and she overhears the bad guys’ conversation?

All of this tightening does two things. It reduces confusion as the reader gets to know the characters and the setting, and sharpens the focus of the story in general. It also opens up room to work with the tropes that shape and define this particular story.

Some questions to ask in revision might be:

-How can the Mean Girls be particularly and uniquely mean? Apart from messing up Evie’s portfolio, what can they do to make her life miserable,without adding a lot to the word count? Is there some magical aspect that can be hinted at, to be made more obvious later? I kind of get a Cinderella vibe, though the mirror has a Snow White angle to it as well. If Cinderella is one of the root stories here, how about two Mean Girls, rather than a gang? Or two with speaking parts, the rest in background for now?

-What can the Tough Goth Friend do or be or say here that helps to advance the story in the direction you want it to go? What is unique about her personality and her role in the story? How does she contribute to the story—positively or negatively?

-Louise is likable and Evie likes her, and that’s a clear departure from the Wicked Stepmother trope. Can you think of other ways to bend the trope? Is she important to the story going forward? Will she continue to play a major role in Evie’s adventures? That would be different, and if it’s played right, it might even win over a dedicated YA reader who wants the focus to remain tightly on the young adult characters.

-Work on dialogue especially. There’s a lot of back and forth in this draft, which might be condensed and focused and pared down to short, pithy interchanges that both establish character and advance the story. The same applies the stage business around the dialogue: just a bit here and there, where it’s most apt or most striking. This will make the words that are said and the actions that are shown stand out more clearly and work harder to move the story forward.

It’s your novel, of course, and your decision as to where it goes and how it gets there. It’s an interesting start, and looks as if it could go off in some intriguing directions. With a leaner, more tightly focused beginning, the key elements of the story will be clearer to see and the lines of the plot easier to follow. Then there’s a bit more room to freshen up the tropes and play with the conventions of the genre.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review July 2017, 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.

My Friend Jules by Stanislav Sredl

“My Friend Jules” caught my attention this month with its playful, rhythmic narrative voice and unconventional narrative conflict: an invisible friend’s desperate attempts to help a little boy get well, despite the eventual, brutal cost to himself. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek creativity here, unfortunately counterbalanced by small issues that add up to muddy the emotional tone of the piece. So this month, I’d like to look at how smaller systemic issues in a piece can feed into bigger ones, or show themselves down to the very last line of a story, and how tackling the smaller pervasive problems with a story can often solve the larger ones.

“My Friend Jules” has a lot of great craft on its side. There’s a strong sense of irony and great imagery—”bent like a soggy pretzel” is entirely original, evocative, and got a laugh—and the balance of energy between the protagonist in Jules, where one thrives as the other fades, feels narratively right. Watching the protagonist’s vocabulary fade in the narrative, while knowing it feeds what he wants for Jules, is a gorgeous, painful effect.

However, the same voice tricks tends to be leaned on a little heavily: Both the mic check scene and the scripted one between Jules and his mother are relying hard on flowery and bombastic language, and since they’re both scenes meant to communicate fairly small things, it makes the language feel, to me, out of proportion. As former workshopper (and NYT bestseller!) Rae Carson has very rightly pointed out, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is actually three—or, in other words, it’s not volume but contrast that matters when we’re crafting prose effects. I’d suggest finding places where it’s plausible to turn the protagonist’s operatic language down—rest spots, valleys—as a way of making the voice work signify both more important parts of the story and ensuring it doesn’t wear readers out, but complements their reading.

The major issue I found with “My Friend Jules” is that its ending doesn’t quite land in a way that’s emotionally satisfying for me as a reader, and I think that’s down to the still-ambiguous nature of the narrator.

There are a few roads “My Friend Jules” marks out for readers to walk down, a few assumptions to make: imaginary friend, the ghost of Mike (calling Jules’s parents “mom and dad” does hint in that direction; the “ask him about the brother” and talking about Mike together hints away), the ghost of some other kid entirely. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule against leaving a protagonist ambiguous, given the kind of emotional closure “My Friend Jules” is going for and how it centers Jules’s grief for his brother, I think it’s perhaps a better call here to close some of those roads, to ensure that readers can pick up the author’s idea of what the narrator is.

The work I’d suggest here is subtle: enough little clues dropped to let readers still enjoy putting together the puzzle of the narrator, and enough restraint in giving out information to keep the question of who the narrator from becoming the central point of the story.

The other question I’d suggest tackling is a structural understanding of some of this story’s why: Why does the doctor suddenly hear the protagonist after all the time spent not hearing him?

The crux of “My Friend Jules” is turning on something arbitrary, and while we’re not always required to show our work to readers in full, I’d suggest that it’s important to know why major plot events occur and demonstrate our own understanding of them. Consider the clues we leave our readers about why something happens, despite not putting that reason on the page, as fibers in a fabric: it’s tangible to readers when those fibers—those reasons—all run in the same direction. The reasons in “My Friend Jules” aren’t running to a common goal yet, aren’t giving the strong sense of a reason behind the doctor’s turnaround, and so that plot point feels mildly arbitrary to me; as if it only happens to get the story moving.

Both those issues are contributing, I think, to the way the ending feels slightly unsatisfying to me: not something that concludes the story but just kind of stops. Jules’s promise to tell his friend about the world outside, about something bigger, should feel deeply emotionally resonant, but because the protagonist’s nature—and therefore limitations, and therefore sources of conflict—hasn’t been cleanly established, it’s hard to know what the story wants me to feel about that promise. Because I can’t be sure why the protagonist broke those limitations in communicating with the doctor, I can’t evaluate well the stakes of this situation and how much he’s invested in Jules’s well-being, and so it’s hard for me to put the right emotional weight on the protagonist letting, finally, Jules go.

There’s a lot to love in “My Friend Jules”: a unique conflict, a playful and urgent voice, a really interesting take on the invisible friend trope. With some focusing, clarifying, and deliberation in the details — in the how and why — I think this piece can untangle its more big-picture issues and, in its next draft, really shine.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review June 2017, 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.

Ambrosia Chap. 1 (Part 1) by Robert Wooldridge

Usually when I do crits, somewhere in there I point out that the rules of writing are not forged in iron but are more of a Pirates’ Code—but that in order to treat them like…guidelines, a writer has to know exactly how and why they work. That’s the only way to know when, and how, to bend or break them.

Mostly I go on to point out where it would have been a good idea to stick to the rules. This time I’m going to talk about where the rules got bent or downright snapped, and why the chapter works for me in spite of it. Sometimes in fact because it messes with The Way Things Are Supposed To Be.

This chapter is the start of what looks like a nice, fat, chewy epic fantasy, or maybe swords and sorcery. It has the street urchin of unknown parentage, the grungy port city, the nasty bully, and the setup for an adventure. And of course it has the witch whom it is a bad idea to approach—but our hero is hired to do just that.

This author knows his genre. The elements are familiar but they’re not off-the-rack standard. What makes them work is the voice in which the story is told. It’s wry, deft, confident. If I were running a line edit I might point to bits that could be tightened, a ramble here and there, but that’s not a major issue for me.

Oh, there is the name thing. That’s a personal quirk. Random Earth names thrown around secondary-world fantasy make me want to spit linguistics textbooks. Then I go into my epic rant about how Westeros has to be a lost Earth Colony—First Men, I mean, really? It’s like Darkover without the psi and with even nastier politics.

But I digress. The naming conventions here are very much in genre, no matter how much they may fry my language-geek circuits. (Joaquin. Gah.)(Porus?)(Really?)

I have an allergy to dialect, too, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a lovely case of I Meant To Do That. The way in which a person speaks is an indicator of where he comes from. Porus exploits this to pull scams on his employers, and today’s edition calls him on it. In the process of which, we learn a great deal about how this corner of the world works.

That’s what I like about the chapter. Rules say don’t frontload the exposition, but everything is there for a reason. The prose pulled me along as I read, and kept me interested even though I didn’t know Porus yet and was still finding my way around his city.

The author’s note expresses concern about pacing, but other than a bit of streamlining as mentioned above, I don’t think there’s a problem. The opening is somewhat leisurely but it keeps moving, and it’s clear there’s a purpose in it. It’s building a world and populating it with people who immediately start striking sparks off each other.

Oh, the rules say start off with a bang and preferably a magical one if it’s fantasy. The rules are for writers with less command of their craft. A writer who knows what he’s doing can keep us entertained with a passage of exposition that sets up our hero and the world he lives in, and then before we have time to get bored, swings us into some bully-on-victim action.

It works for me. I’ll definitely read on. I want to see if the witch is as well drawn as the characters as I’ve met so far—and I want to know where Poros and company go from there.

In short, it draws me in, keeps me interested, and leaves me wanting more. That’s as much as any first chapter needs to do.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review June 2017, 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.

Dark Shepherds: The Burn Notice by M Lachi

This is an interesting piece, with some intricate worldbuilding and a lot of careful thought about the setting, background, and characters. Reading it is an immersive experience. There’s so much detail, so much interwoven and interlaced descriptions, ideas, actions and thoughts.

What I’d like to talk about in the context of this Editor’s Choice is not so much the word-for-word, but a general concept that the author has clearly been thinking about, and has been working on. That is the idea of writing tight.

In terms of writing style, one size emphatically does not fit all. It’s not just about voice and word choice and process, but also about the needs of the individual work. A stripped-down, pared-to-the-bone style works for a thriller, for example, where the action is key and the rapid movement of the plot is what brings the reader in. A fantasy epic on the other hand, or a Dune or Exordium-style space opera, needs room to stretch out; takes time for lengthy passages of description and exposition; and explores the lives and surroundings of multiple characters.

This chapter leans distinctly in the latter direction, and in the prologue especially, the prose is a Celtic knotwork of repetition and recapitulation, piling up words and phrases to evoke a sense of complex and many-layered perception. This is the author’s style. But as with everything, there are ways to make that style, along with the author’s ideas, clearer and more accessible to readers.

I like to ask questions when I’m revising or when I’m suggesting revisions for others’ mss. With a ms. that could use some pruning, I look for answers to one or more of the following:

Has this information appeared before in the narrative? Does it need to be repeated here? If so, can I add something new to it, some aspect that wasn’t addressed before, that moves the story forward and further develops the characters or the setting?

Is this information essential for the understanding of the story at this particular point? Can I leave it out and still have the story make sense? Can I move it somewhere else in the narrative where it will be more effective? Does it need to be there at all?

Am I using too many words? Have I piled on the qualifiers? Can I pare them away without losing the meaning? Can my verbs be active and straightforward (walked instead of was walking, for example) and can my phrases be leaner, without extra padding? If I use two or more versions of the same concept, do I need all of them? Can I pick one and let the rest be implied by the context?

Am I repeating the same words over and over? Repetition of words and phrases can be very effective; politicians know this, as do motivational speakers. But as with most rhetorical effects, a little goes a long way. Can I keep it down to once a paragraph or once a page? Can I save it for when I really want the idea to pop? If I take it all out, has the story lost emphasis or vividness?

Am I trusting my reader enough? This question goes along with repetition of words and ideas, as well as infodumps, background information, and so on. Am I trusting my reader to understand what I’m saying? Am I including information that she can pick up through implication? Do I need to remind her of information she’s already seen, especially if she’s seen it more than once? She may need a reminder if it’s been a while, but if it’s important and it’s just happened, she probably just needs a quick pointer, or else she’ll remember it well enough that I can get right to my point without stopping to fill her in.

Have I chosen the right details? As I’m setting up the scene and portraying the character, am I providing too much information? Is it the right information? Have I emphasized minor aspects of the scene or setting or character but written around the major ones? Can I sharpen the focus and, again, trust the reader to get the details I’ve left out through the few I’m chosen to leave in?

Have I chosen the right scene? Have I written the events and interactions that are key to the movement of the story? Have I provided essential information, or is that information consigned to the background? Are characters talking about events that happened offstage rather than experiencing them onstage? Do we need the conversation, or will the scene itself tell the story with more immediacy and effectiveness?

Am I keeping my eye on the prize? If you’re a stylist (as I am), the immediate prize for a writing session is the cascade of words in front of you. What can get lost in the words is what readers in general come to genre for, which is story. The words may be my prize, but for most readers, they’re color and spackle at best and a distraction at worst. Readers want a story that moves forward, that contains believable characters, that satisfies the impulse that brought them to the genre in general and this story in particular. If I give them lots of detailed worldbuilding, they’ll sit for it better than readers of other genres, but eventually they want that beginning-middle-end, rampup-crisis-denouement thing.

For that, I have to be careful about the words-to-story ratio. As with meat to bun in a burger, there are different schools of thought as to which is optimal, but they all come back sooner or later to the nom in the middle. That nom is the story, the plot, the progression of scenes toward some form of conclusion.

That’s what writing tighter can help the story do. Pruning the undergrowth, keeping the best effects, letting them stand out from the rest. This helps build stronger pacing, which is what story-movement is. And that keeps the reader reading, which is the ultimate goal.

–Judith Tarr