Editor’s Choice Review March 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 Sea Above by Crystal Sarakas

I love the title of this piece, and the concept is lovely. I like the protagonist, too, and her relationship with the AI which has clearly achieved sentience (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).

But of course I have questions. Editors always have questions. It’s a flaw in our character.

The main question I keep coming back to is the difference between the pacing of a novel and that of a short story. Every word in a novel has to count, just as in a shorter work, but a novel allows more space: more digressions, more characters and subplots, a more leisurely progression of events from opening to conclusion. A short story on the other hand needs to be compact and tightly focused. Fewer characters (though many more can be left to implication), far fewer scenes and events, and a fairly narrow range of ideas. A story will generally try to hone in on a single idea, and the structure and pacing of the story revolves around that idea.

In “The Sea Above,” the idea is clear: a world in ecological collapse, in which humanity has been forced to take to the sea, and a character who dreams of trees. This has the resonance of a poem, and at under 6000 words, aims at the focus of a short story.

The pacing however is closer to that of a novel. Vale begins with a reflection on her dream of green things, segues into elements of worldbuilding—where she is, how she happens to be unable to leave her own room–which allows the introduction of Xavier. There is more worldbuilding as she gets ready to go out, we meet the AI which has more or less named itself Hans, then Xavier and Vale, conversing on various topics, make their way through an essentially unpopulated space to the morning work meeting.

The pacing is leisurely. Conversation repeats itself as Vale tells Xavier what Hans has said to her, or explains why she’s saying a particular thing to Hans. We follow the characters step by step, until they arrive in a populated space, where we’re told everyone is in some form of turmoil. Vale and Xavier speculate as to the cause of that turmoil, then tell each other how they’re going to learn what it’s really about.

At this point, Hans speaks to Vale, and Xavier makes it clear he’s been spoken to as well; then there’s a public announcement. They’ve been summoned to a briefing, which is described in detail, point for point, with commentary on various personalities including Silva, with whom Vale is not friends. There has been an earthquake, and buildings have collapsed.

This both is and is not a crisis. Vale is part of one of the teams sent out to survey the damage, but the tone is calm and there’s no sense of urgency. At the end of the scene, Vale pauses to drink in the scenery, and to explain to Hans what she’s doing and why. And then the story jumps ahead several weeks during which Vale tells us she’s had panic attacks, but the tone remains low-key.

In this new section, after weeks of doing the same thing day after day, with more collapses and ongoing crises, Vale and Xavier discuss her idea of scanning an area of cliffs for signs of further collapse. They agree it’s a good idea. Turns out command agrees, too. They take a novice diver with them, as they did in the previous scene, and there’s discussion of turning the expedition into a hunt for food.

Suddenly they encounter a school of fish. The novice wanders off into the school, just as predators attack. With the help of Hans, Vale and Xavier barely escape, to find themselves trapped in a cave. Vale panics, Hans talks her through it, she finds a way out—and finds her dream: land, and green.

The end is lovely, and circles nicely back around to the beginning. What’s in between tends to work in triads: actions, interactions, and worldbuilding details are presented in threes. For example, Hans will speak to Vale, Vale will tell Xavier what it said, then Xavier will say he’s heard the same thing. Likewise, a thing will happen, Vale and Xavier will speculate as to why, then we’ll be told what happened and why. In the final scene, Hans tells Vale what’s going on, Vale repeats the data with her own emotional overlay, then Hans tries to soothe and calm her.

The pacing, with its triple loops and its use of dialogue and speech as exposition, as well as the time-frame of weeks and the downplaying of the extent of the crisis, feels more novel-like than short-story-like. I love details of worldbuilding, and love the sense of there being a fully realized world beneath the framework of the story, but when the story is short, I look for a clear line from beginning to end: the sense that the story is aiming at a single, distinct point.

What seems to be happening here is a focus on precise details of worldbuilding and character development, but those details tend to wander away from the point, which is that the earthquakes and collapses must be related in some way to the reemergence of land. The land that Vale finds has been above water for some time, long enough to grow trees—which means the immediate crisis in the underwater city is actually of considerable duration. I find myself looking for a clearer sense of a precipitating event, some more distinct and focused line of storytelling that takes us from Vale’s dream to its fulfillment.

I also feel as if the plotting could be more focused and streamlined. For example, both dives involve the same mix of people (and an AI): Vale, Xavier, a novice, and Hans. What if those dives were combined? Do they both need to exist, or can they take place in a single scene that establishes the job the characters are doing, runs them into the fish and the squid, and ends up in the open air? That way, the story is tighter and the point comes through more clearly, with plenty of worldbuilding, action, and personal stakes.

The story can move along more quickly in general. At the beginning, do Vale and Xavier need to take so long to get to the central gathering point? Can this scene be much shorter while conveying the same essential information? When they arrive at the briefing, might this be condensed and focused so that we get a clearer sense of how the earthquakes are increasing in number and the city is in real danger? Can Vale’s dive be shown to be more crucial, with higher stakes? It can begin as routine–or as routine as scanning for actual and potential disaster can be (and is anyone thinking about how to fix things?)–but then it can, and in story terms should, evolve into anything but.

While we’re talking about condensing and tightening, is Silva an essential character? When he was introduced, I thought he would play a role in the story, serve as an antagonist, or as a catalyst for an event that drives the story forward. I would expect that, for example, he would do something to drive the divers toward the squid, or be the wandering character who gets lost, but in searching for him, Vale and company find the cave and the land.

That’s the difference between a novel and a short story, right there. Every character in a short piece has to earn his keep. If he’s introduced, he has a role to play. In a novel he might be a peripheral annoyance, an ongoing irritant, but at this length, with the number of words devoted to him, the expectation is that he’ll be a driver of the story in some significant way.

I like this story a great deal, and find the setting memorable and compelling. If the plotting can clarify and focus itself, and the repetitions of details and actions be pared down, I think it will be really strong, powerful and moving.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Wind/Water/Salt Chapter 1 by Robyn Hamilton

This is my first experience of Bucklepunk, which I didn’t even realize was a thing, and I’m intrigued. Now I want to know all about it. What’s the tipping point from our own timeline? How does the concept of electricity develop so early? What about–?

So here we have the first chapter of a 45-chapter Bucklepunk novel. I’m caught up enough in it that I want to read on. I do agree with the author’s comment that switching viewpoints is a good thing, but it might get too rigid, and possibly confusing, if it happens with every chapter. A more flexible structure might work better: either a main story line as told by Abigail (or another central protagonist) with others chiming in as indicated, or a fairly freeform switching of narrators according to the needs of the story.

However that turns out, this first chapter manages to establish two strong characters. Abigail womans the viewpoint camera, of course, but Susannah has plenty to do and say. It’s a good start.

I have some questions about the draft, both larger issues and down to the sentence level. First, going back to the author’s note: I get a basic picture of the relationship between the two characters, and the overall emotional arc they transcribe in the chapter, but I think it needs more.

It’s an opening chapter, of course, with 44 more to go; it’s a snippet, therefore, and not an entire, fully developed construct. But it’s still possible to get a sense of who these people are and where they’re headed in relation to each other.

I’m rather taken with the absolute deadpan of Susannah’s reaction to the dead cat—it’s a very kid thing, to be utterly without sentimentality—but at the same time, there’s a bit of flatness in the emotional landscape overall. I keep looking for more resonance, more depth in how they feel about each other. It’s not that we need the prose to turn purple or the emotions to go over the top; it’s just that I’d like to get a clearer view of what’s happening below the surface of what they do and say. Abigail has a tendency to dismiss things that ought to really bother her: “at least they were out of town, so no one could see;” the devastation isn’t such a big deal after all, because Abigail doesn’t have a carriage, and anyway, nobody ever visits. It feels as if all of this is rationalization, and undercuts the extent of the damage as well as her reactions to it.

That bit of flatness extends through the chapter. As I said, Susannah’s deadpan about the cat—her fascination with the forms and consequences of its death—is convincing, but there’s another layer or two that might be worked in, about how they’ve lost the demon on whom at least some of their magic depends.

This is a crisis on many levels. I think we could see a few more of those levels, and Abigail could be more deeply perturbed than she is. She starts off by saying it’s “just a cat,” but in fact it’s a great deal more than that. Is she trying to keep Susannah from panicking, is she in denial herself, or…?

In this context, Susannah’s lack of emotion could be developed as a defense mechanism. She clearly loves animals and has named the squirrel. Did she name the cat? If not, why not? Was she afraid of it? Did she hate it because there was a demon in it? What underlies her actions as she fiddles with the corpse?

It doesn’t need to be much. A line would do it, if it’s the right line. Just enough to convey that there’s more to what she does and says than meets the eye.

Abigail as the viewpoint character allows more penetration into her thought processes, but she could go a little deeper, too. More complexity, more layers and levels of feeling (or lack thereof).

I was a bit puzzled as to why she’s as awkward as she is when she attempts to summon the demon to a new body. It seems that she doesn’t totally understand how the demon/familiar connection works, she’s not completely capable of sensing when the demon enters the body, and her command of the basics—including the wand—isn’t what one might expect of an experienced and capable witch.

Is Abigail meant to be this way? Is her lack of competence deliberate? Is she basically an amateur playing at spells and powers that she doesn’t truly understand, and is this a key plot point? Or are her failures more deep and disturbing, in that she’s actually a master but her skills are failing her? I think it could be clearer where she stands on these issues, even if the author would like to leave questions and mysteries for later chapters.

These are larger concepts that might be resolved as the story proceeds, but there are smaller aspects of technique and phrasing that show up right here in the draft. The author’s note asks whether the setting works. Overall I think it does. We get the storm, the devastation, the general layout of the property.

Sentence by sentence however, I think the chapter might work better if the elements of setting, the order of description and the specifics of detail were reorganized a bit. The fixation on the familiar almost makes sense, but as Abigail takes stock, she jumps around from place to place and from element to element. A smoother pan of the viewpoint-camera, and a better sense of priorities (from most to least awful, or vice versa depending on the effect desired), would make the overall picture more effective and affecting.

A good and up-front example of this happens at the very beginning. The organization of actions and ideas doesn’t quite flow. First we have a flashback to Abigail telling Susannah to stay in the shed—without further reference, and with no reprimand for disobedience. Then we have Susannah coming out of the shed, and we’re told that’s where they both spent the night. It might make more sense to spell that out in the opening, and also clarify where Abigail is, so we have the scene blocked right up front—and if it is crucial that Abigail forbade Susannah to come outside, then Abigail will address that at this point. Then the conversation can proceed, with Susannah continuing to be willful and Abigail investigating the dead cat.

In fact I wonder whether Susannah’s question about the smell should be the first line. It’s a Rule in some quarters not to begin a novel or chapter with a line of dialogue, but this line is sharp, pointed, and begs the reader to keep going to find out the answer. Susannah asks about the smell as she comes out of the shed where they spent the night, perhaps Abigail shoots her a Look for not doing as she’s told, but the lost familiar so preoccupies her that she doesn’t have room in her head for anything else right now (though later may be an entirely different proposition).

One last thing that might help the reader to understand the stakes and the difficulty here: what exactly does the familiar do, that makes its loss such a catastrophe? Is there one thing that Abigail absolutely needs, that only the familiar can provide? I like the idea that Abigail has provided cover by making familiars a fad, it’s clever and wicked and tells me a great deal about Abigail, but I’d like to understand what a familiar is. Then I’ll be that much clearer about what’s going on and why it matters.

Best of luck with this. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ll be interested to see how the story unfolds.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Dialogue With Death by Tony Valiulis

As a physicist turned writer, I found this story about a physicist turned writer (and serial killer) irresistible.  But it has much more to offer than that.  Many, many stories have been written in which death appears as a character.   That means any new story using this conceit needs to offer some fresh perspective or element.  “Dialogue with Death” offers several fresh elements that draw me in.  First, death is not some omniscient, immortal being.  Instead, death is specifically one person’s death, in this case, Lane’s.  This death came into being at a certain point in Lane’s life and will probably cease to exist when Lane does.  Second, death is able to design Lane’s death using Lane’s particular interests and fears.  And since Lane is obsessed with physics and philosophy and meaning, his death is unique.

Many stories have also been written about serial killers.  But here, also, the story has something fresh to offer.  Lane’s failed search for the meaning of life in physics led him to find a purpose in life by killing.  He doesn’t really care who he kills or how; it’s just something he does once a year to provide meaning for himself.

The story also has some vivid description, as in the second paragraph.

I do think the story could be strengthened in several ways.  The story mainly serves to reveal its underlying idea:  that death has created a uniquely horrifying fate for Lane.  Lane is on the verge of death at the start of the story, and various visions and flashbacks interrupt his dialogue with death.  This type of structure is different than a traditional structure in which the protagonist is struggling to achieve a goal.  Lane doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve anything; he seems like death’s victim, powerless over his thoughts or fate.  In such a structure, it’s important to limit those visions and flashbacks to the minimum number necessary to set up the ending.  I think several of these aren’t necessary to set up the ending and could be cut.  For example, Keegan seems to have no effect on Lane’s fate.  She seems to come into Lane’s life and exit his life rather randomly.  Whenever events feel random, not part of a causal chain, they seem manipulated by the author.  So that’s how Keegan felt.   I understand that she represents Lane’s chance to change, but then neither Lane nor death thinks he would have changed, and her presence in his life has nothing to do with his final fate, so her scenes aren’t pulling their weight in the story.  I think with a story like this, the shorter you can make it, the more power the end will carry.

The story also seems wordy at times, so more length could be cut by eliminating that.  For example, the last six paragraphs of the fourth scene (starting “That these same theories . . .”) seem to be belaboring some ideas that the story has previously established quite well.  I think you could cut the length of that section by 50% at least.  Similarly, in the eighth scene, there’s a section of five paragraphs beginning “Lane shook his head and rolled his shoulders” that I think could be cut by about 70%.  I found my interest in the story declining the longer I read, because the story seemed to bounce back and forth between flashbacks and conversations with death too much, and some scenes didn’t seem to contribute a lot.

I’d love to see some of the most intriguing aspects of the idea developed more.  I’m fascinated by the fact that death came to awareness because of Lane’s murders.  It seems that people who don’t commit horrible acts have no personal “death” who decides their fate but simply pass into eternal peace.  If that’s the case, what does it take to create a death?  Most people are guilty of some bad act.  Does this only happen with murder?   Does this mean there is some moral force controlling the afterlife?  I think Lane would wonder about this.

I was constantly thrown off by the omniscient point of view.  We spend time in Lane’s head (“His mind wandered,” “Lane could see an image”), time outside of Lane looking at him and commenting on him (“his lips curling into something between a sneer and a smile,” “Lane was 35,” “It gave Professor Lane’s life meaning”), and time outside of both Lane and death (“death’s face darkened, momentarily became almost skeletal”).  In an omniscient POV, you can do all of these things, but moving between them needs to be done gradually and smoothly, so the reader is not jarred and distracted.  Instead of gradually transitioning from inside Lane to outside Lane to inside the omniscient narrator’s perspective, the POV often seemed to jump from one to the other, leaving me confused and disoriented.

Finally, while I like the idea of Lane being relegated to a physics-related eternal limbo, there are two things about his fate that don’t make sense to me.  First, looking at the science, when someone (say Lane) is traveling near or at the speed of light, time slows down for Lane only relative to the observations of someone else (say death).  Lane, traveling at c, would experience time as moving forward normally.  It would be only death, watching Lane, who would see Lane seemingly moving infinitely slowly.  So Lane would not be trapped in a moment as the story describes.  At least, that’s the way I see it.

The second part of his fate that doesn’t make sense to me is why death chose it.  I understand using physics and a unified field theory against Lane, which is a nice idea, but why is a numb limbo the worst fate for Lane?  I would think being in horrible pain for eternity would be worse.  If Lane hated boredom and sameness, then a numb limbo would be an appropriate punishment.  But that doesn’t seem to be Lane’s issue.  If you could tie his death to making his life meaningless, that would seem a more appropriate fate.

I really enjoy the underpinnings of physics and philosophy, and the fresh elements you’ve brought to the story.   I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Editor’s Choice Review March 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.

Biddy by Caleb March

“Biddy” caught my attention this month with its confident voice, textured prose, and the way it quietly paints violence as not a shock to the reader or a glorification, but part of one character’s struggle to be the kind of person he’d like to be. It’s a nuanced take on a fairly standard narrative, and so this month I’d like to talk about writing our version of the standards, trope reply, and how we tackle writing something that’s, beat for beat, a stock story.

“Biddy” lays out a very standard horror fiction plot: Someone is tormented for being different, they take a gruesome revenge, and the protagonist must stop it or succumb to it. There are versions of this story everywhere, in slushpiles, magazines, and drawers. And it’s the very standard nature of that story which highlights one of the interesting aspects of writing short fiction. Short stories are occasionally like jazz: Everyone knows the standards, but it’s what we do with them, as writers, that shows our grasp of our craft.

And “Biddy” shows off its craft well, from the very first scene. As well as setting the stage for the theme of the incident with Bethany, the story of the chickens establishes a fantastic and instant sense of atmosphere. The conflict is established in miniature: the protagonist’s viciousness, his understanding that it’s wrong, and his resulting shame. When Bethany and her siblings come on the scene, the parallels between her and that chick are instantly visible, and the question becomes whether history will repeat itself, or whether the protagonist will manage to find his way out of the moral loop he’s caught himself in. We know what the story is by the end of Scene One. Watching how it will play out in a higher-stakes situation is the source of all the tension through the rest of the story.

That tension is complemented by the prose and voice. There’s a lot of writing advice about writing in dialect—mostly on what not to do—but “Biddy” is a great example of a regional voice done well. The protagonist’s voice is natural and coherent, and his regionalisms are baked in: the rhythm of his storytelling voice, the expressions he uses, and the choice of metaphors all ground him in his time and place.

Combined with some ominously gorgeous imagery—I especially liked the ice-capped peaks of the mountains rose in great biting stony teeth above the tree line—the prose style serves to render someone who’s very much part of his landscape and family, very observant, very smart, and unashamed of any of those parts of him. Our narrator in “Biddy” is a three-dimensional character, complicated, regretful, thoughtful, deftly funny (“nothing under his hat but hair and a perpetual grudge” is great), and tangled in his own delicate social dynamics. What’s more, he’s layered by the fact that the story’s told from a later point in time. There’s an implicit character arc in the contrast between the protagonist’s actions at the time, and the shame his later perspective coats those actions with, making him even more nuanced. More than anything else, the way all these effects combine into a character that’s thoroughly real makes “Biddy” work.

That said, I suspect “Biddy” might still not be the easiest to place. It’s occupying an interesting space: a plot that’s perhaps too traditional for boundary-pushing markets, and a reply to the tropes of horror fiction might prove a little too much for the most traditional horror markets.

What, specifically, “Biddy” has to say for itself—what it has to say about the trope of the teenage girl turning monstrous and taking revenge, and the handling of guilt that horror concerns itself with—is extremely subtle. While I hesitate to say it, because “Biddy” is very much a complete story in and of itself, and I’m not sure if tinkering with it at this point is the right decision, it might be too subtle for the editors who would appreciate what it’s quietly saying about the response to having done wrong.

There is so much to be said for the fact that the protagonist forgoes his dreams and gets stuck, just like every single one of the boys who tormented Biddy; just like Biddy herself, and her siblings. His college education doesn’t get him where he’s going, because of where he’s from and how he speaks and the money he doesn’t have. He ends up scarred and back on the ranch for life. And yet it’s what he does with that disappointment that’s so fascinating to me: In a school full of mean boys and a town full of drunk and gossiping adults, our narrator never gets mean. Instead he considers the rifle, and sets it aside. He takes responsibility. He grows up.

It’s a powerful take on how to handle the question of guilt and violence that horror discusses. It’s a thing worth saying. And while I’m suggesting it with reservations, because again—the fabric of “Biddy” is so well woven that I’m not sure it’s worth disrupting—it may be worthwhile to experiment with bringing that idea just a heartbeat more forward, making its clues just a touch stronger and easier to catch. In the question of how to get around the reflex of oh, same old story, I’m pretty sure this is the answer, but done delicately, with tweezers.

So: I do apologize for how inconclusive this critique has ended up. It’s hard to speak helpfully on a story that’s well done, but that I suspect, just by virtue that it’s been done, is going to be hard to place. If the right editor doesn’t connect with this piece, after a dozen or twenty markets tried, I’d rewrite with an eye to what makes “Biddy” new: what advances the conversation this trope is having, what it has to say, what it’s putting forward.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Talisman And Bone by Karen Kobylarz

I had to choose this piece for this month’s Editor’s Choice—it’s in so many of my wheelhouses. Secondary world based strongly on Earth history, opening in an alternate Tyre, with mentions of Egypt and the ancient Middle East. A hint of adjacent or alternate worlds—one moon or three. There’s so much to love.

The writing is lovely, too, with occasional images that made me stop and go, “Oh, nice!” This, for example: A hint of smoke and jasmine lingered in the air. Or this: I tried to call out, but the storm stole my voice. And this, too: I reached and pulled the weapon free, the white light of Creation’s power sheening its black surface.

There’s a true love of words here, and a strong music in the prose. It’s a pleasure and occasionally a revelation to read.

The writing is very fine, but there’s still work to do. The author’s note on the draft mentions that an editor found the protagonist hard to relate to. I don’t necessarily have that problem, but what I do see might call for a kind of inversion of the usual rules for strong writing.

Keep your writing active, we’re told. Eschew the passive and the abstract. Focus on the concrete. Gravitate toward clear, vivid, memorable images and active constructions.

This is excellent advice in the main. Here I think we may need to relax the rules a bit, keeping the lovely images but moving a bit away from the consistently concrete. That’s the basis of the issue with the protagonist, I think.

She is very active. She’s a doer. She observes and comments and acts and reacts. She seems to have agency, in that she has goals and an agenda, though there’s a fair element of inadvertence in how she goes about achieving them.

What’s missing for me is a sense of emotional depth, of being inside her skin. The story is strongly cinematic—that is, we see and hear what’s going on; we’re shown surface actions and external results, so we have hints of what’s happening underneath. We don’t actually break through the wall into her inner thoughts and feelings. We have a predominance of the concrete, but there’s not quite enough of the abstract or intuitive to balance it.

I chose the quotations above for their beauty but also because they illustrate what’s going on with the storytelling overall. While she appears to act, she’s really being acted upon. Inanimate objects and forces of nature carry the weight of the story. I think we need to go another layer or more below this and show the emotional landscape: the deeper effects on her of the things that are happening around and to her. Let these things happen, but let us see them through the filter of her senses and feelings. We have the data, but we wonder how she’s processing it.

The plotting runs into this issue as well. Her departure from Tyre is reactive—her husband is killed and she has to flee, but while she’s acting and speaking, we have to extrapolate what she’s feeling. She might be numb, that would be a natural first response, but as a reader I want to be sure that’s what’s happening.

When she raises her powers to invoke the storm, its strongest effects happen offstage—and past the initial impetus, her role is essentially passive. We jump from storm to shipwreck, but might benefit from a suitably concise experience of the disaster, with a stronger sense of how it makes her feel and how she may be trying to regain the control she’s lost–or perhaps she’s not trying, but giving up, as once again her magic betrays her. That may seem like a passive response, but it’s a choice. In emotional terms, it’s active.

The questions this reader is impelled to ask, here as elsewhere in the story, are about penetrating the surface and going down into her inner world. What does she feel? How do these events affect her on a deeper level?

The ending has great potential, though her quest to find her own, three-mooned world could be more strongly grounded in character and story. Is it a major motivator, or is it more incidental? Evidently it’s been delayed by her marriage and her stay in Tyre, and now she’s stopping again. I feel as if the stakes at this point could be higher, and she could have more difficulty making the choice—and the choice itself could be clearer. She should make it because she truly chooses to, because she has solid and compelling reasons, rather than because there’s a vacancy and someone needs to fill it.

This comes back to the question of agency. She does a lot of things, but does she do them on her own initiative or because circumstances compel her? What are her strongest driving motivations? What mix of emotions and needs and desires drives her to do what she does?

I don’t think this needs a lot of exposition, nor any purpling of the prose, but if she feels as clearly as she acts and speaks, that may help to resolve the issue of relatability. Readers like to feel as if they’re inside a character’s skin, living the events of the story with her. A little more inside to go with the outside, and this already well-written story will be even more powerful and effective.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Garden Of Purgatory C4C Revised by Robin Zell

I like the concept of this piece a lot, would love to read a novel about the cats. Beginning with a prologue about how the cats got to where they are in Chapter One makes sense to me, and if done well, will both pull the reader in and provide background for the events of the novel proper.

What I’m seeing in this version is a case of concept pulling ahead of character. That’s where the emphasis on dialogue is coming from, I think. Linda is the mechanism for explaining the situation. Harold is the foil, to whom the situation is explained. Even when he’s not there, Linda’s internal monologue revolves around her fundamental dislike for him, interspersed with passages of exposition and background.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with two incompatible people figuring out how to survive after a spaceship crash, but first a worldbuilding question: Would the people responsible for selecting crews be that irresponsible about this match? Why are these two specific people here, now, on this particular ship?

There’s some mention of this in the draft, including the allusion to cost-cutting, but I think it needs more grounding in background and motivation. It can still be a stupid and wrongheaded decision, but I think the story needs more layers. More reason for it to have happened this way. More complexity in the how and why.

This doesn’t need more explanation in the narrative so much as more grounding in the underpinnings of world and story. That I think would include rethinking Harold: what he knows, how he knows it, how he handles the crisis. As written, he’s very much Linda’s intellectual inferior, and he doesn’t contribute much to the mission. He doesn’t have a compelling reason to be there, except for her to explain things to. We need a middle ground between Harold-knows-nothing and Linda-is-the-smart-one, and more demonstrated competence on his part.

There are various ways to make him a more effective character. He might be her match for knowledge and competence, but there’s an ongoing competition between them, sharpened by mutual dislike. In that case, the scenes between them would be more likely to involve mutual hashing out of problems and solutions, with each taking diametrically opposite positions on everything. Again there’s a hint of this dynamic in the scenes between them, but his lack of knowledge and her position as explainer and sole problem-solver feels unbalanced.

Or, his lack of knowledge and understanding might be a consequence of his rapid aging, which adds a different level of complexity to the situation. Because of what happened during the crash, Harold is cognitively incapable of doing his job. Linda has to take up the slack for both. Or even, if it’s bad enough, consider eliminating him in order to stretch their finite resources for her own survival.

If the narrative takes that direction, would Linda worry about ending up like Harold? Would there be pressure to get as much done as she can before that happens? Would she be tempted to give up? Dive into denial? Suicide?

Rethinking Linda’s scenes might help as well. Rather than presenting the facts of the crash through internal monologue, perhaps a flashback? That would be a more direct experience, and perhaps more effective. Likewise, where she thinks about what Harold is like, could we have a scene that shows it instead? Let us see for ourselves from the beginning, and better understand her problems with him.

I’d particularly like to see more of the cats. Rather than Harold relating an offstage encounter and Linda reacting, then explaining what she did, what if the encounter happens onstage and we also get to see more of Linda’s manipulations via scene and flashback? In short—show events directly, happening in real time (story present or story past), rather than indirectly through expository speeches.

Dialogue is tough. We’re encouraged to think of it an active storytelling technique, a way of heightening immediacy and immersing the reader more deeply in the relationship between characters. But if one character consistently explains and the other reacts, that can actually weaken the impact of the story. Dialogue becomes monologue (and internal monologue often accompanies dialogue-as-lecture), and the real substance of the story recedes from the reader’s awareness. She’s being told what happens rather than directly experiencing it.

Right now, in this draft, we’re still in the blocking-out stage. Linda is setting up the situation, explaining how it works. Harold is there to give her a reason to explain things. If there’s more balance between them—either they’re closer to equals or there’s a stronger reason for him to be her inferior—the story structure should sort itself out as well. More scenes in which things happen, more direct experience of events, and for sure, More Cats!

Will there be less dialogue as a result? Maybe not. But the dialogue should work harder to keep the story moving, and rely less heavily on exposition. Then it will really earn its place in the narrative.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Queen Of The Wilis (Updated) by Kelsey Hutton

This tight, atmospheric story quickly draws me in.  By the second paragraph, I’m intrigued by the tone and situation and want to continue.  By the fifth paragraph, I sense the foreshadowing in the mention of Giselle and the “jilted wraiths who take their revenge,” and I’m eager to keep reading to see if this is a revenge story (and if wraiths are involved).  By the eighth paragraph, I have a pretty solid sense of this opera house that offers up its dancers as lovers/prostitutes to rich patrons who keep the opera house in business, so I can understand the significance of the single sentence in the ninth paragraph, “Until tonight.” Placed where it is, this sentence has a major impact, making me excited to see what Myrtha is going to attempt.  The ending of the story reveals Myrtha’s plan and has some nice description (such as “The paper forest comes to life”).  The final paragraph works well.

So I think a lot is working well with this 1,602-word story.  It’s hard to write short, but this piece does a good job of remaining focused, which is key to fiction of this length.  The story begins with Myrtha already pursuing her goal, and it ends when she achieves her goal, so it has a compact, one-act structure.  The story is mainly about revealing what that goal is and the haunting way in which she’ll achieve it.  This is the way many short pieces work; rather than showing us an evolving situation in which the protagonist’s goals and methods change, they simply reveal the existing situation to us.  Since the existing situation is unexpected and striking, revealing it creates a satisfying story.

I did feel a fair amount of confusion on my first read, and I think clearing that up will strengthen the story.   My biggest confusion was about Myrtha.  Because she is, seemingly, speaking to the wealthy gentleman in the first paragraph, and none of the ballet girls speak, I conclude Myrtha is a supervisor/madam, someone who keeps the ballet girls on schedule, runs them through their activities, and hooks up dancers with rich patrons.  In para. 2, Myrtha speaks of the “ballet girls” as if they are people other than herself.  When she says, in the next sentence, “it is time for us to stretch,” I think she’s speaking as the supervisor of the stretching, not as one of the girls who is stretching.  But then the final sentence of para. 2 reads, “We lean over the barre.”  On my first reading, this feels like a point of view shift.  This feeling grows a few paragraphs later with “I move to the back of the room for my pirouettes” and continues through all the pirouettes.  I think this means that the first-person POV has moved into the head of the dancer playing Giselle.

My suggestion would be to make Myrtha the supervisor/madam, since that would better mirror her role as queen at the end.  If she’s just one of the girls, then I don’t know what makes her special or queen. Also, if there is no supervisor/madam, it seems like the girls can avoid being ogled by the patrons (by not going into this room) and can avoid having sex with them.  For myself, I would be more interested in a character who has previously facilitated this process (probably a former “ballet girl”) finally deciding to end it.

The other main source of confusion was the lack of any cue to separate dialogue from other narrative elements.  The first paragraph of the story appears to be Myrtha’s dialogue, but it has no quotation marks around it.  At various other points in the story I believe Myrtha is speaking, though it’s often unclear until I finish the sentence (sometimes I decide she was speaking, sometimes not), and sometimes it remains unclear after that.  For example, “Look at her blush at all the abonnes’ attention, see how she hides her burning cheek . . .” seems to be dialogue, but it is preceded by two sentences of description, so it takes a couple readings to figure out this is dialogue.  To add to the confusion, some of her dialogue seems paraphrased rather than given word for word.  Initially, I think that “But it is also time for wealthy patrons such as yourself to survey this season’s wares” is dialogue, but then I think Myrtha would not call the girls “wares” to the patrons, so I decide this is paraphrased dialogue.  This is too much decoding to do and still remain involved in the story.

My suggestion is that you put dialogue into a separate paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy and some other writers do.  Of writing without quotation marks, McCarthy says, “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.”  A few times, you provide dialogue tags, which tell me that someone is, indeed speaking aloud.  Those could be used more to clarify the situation.

I had a few other areas of confusion.  I don’t understand who “her” is in this sentence:  “Your candied words dribble to a stop as you catch me watching you watching her.”  He seems to be watching Myrtha (“me”), not any “her.”  Also, I didn’t know he was speaking.

I don’t understand why Myrtha would risk revealing her intentions with her creepy spinning and grinning.  Isn’t she concerned that she could be stopped?  If there is no danger, then there is no suspense.  How did she suddenly become so powerful?

I don’t know why the one man is singled out for revenge when all the others seem to be ignored (I guess they die, but Myrtha doesn’t seem to care that they die).

When the “velvet chairs disappear” and everything seems to be collapsing, I think the man has already fallen far out of sight, so it’s confusing when “the floor drops out below [him]” when I think it’s already gone, and then he hits the stage.

In addition to addressing the confusion, I would suggest providing a bit more suspense.  Perhaps there is a moment when Myrtha fears her revenge will not occur as she has planned.  This might occur right before “We are reborn,” and give us a sense that this transformation requires some effort on Myrtha’s part and may or may not work.  Right now, it seems to happen with no particular effort and for no particular reason.  I’m not asking for a whole magic system; that wouldn’t be convincing.  But Myrtha might remember in a rapid montage of images all that has been done to her and the ballet girls, and all she has done to them (if she’s served as madam), and that creates the energy that drives the revenge.

I hope my comments are helpful.  The story creates a strong atmosphere and leaves the reader with a strong image.

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Editor’s Choice Review February 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.

Kings Of Snow by Cecile Cristofari

“Kings of Snow” caught my eye this month with how much it accomplishes in a very few words: three distinct personalities, a fully realized world caught between ending and rebirth, odds, stakes, catharsis, and a tinge, small but real, of hope.  This month, I’d like to talk about how retellings seat themselves in the readers’ context, and balancing on the fine line between didacticism and making art that speaks for something.

Overall, “Kings of Snow” does great craft work: the empty landscape, literally white as the page, is populated not just with descriptions of what Gas sees, but overlaid with memories that both jump out crisply and juxtapose with what’s described now to create a sense of time, loss, and texture.  That juxtaposition echoes in the story’s metaphors, too: the implied sameness-and-yet-contrast of phrases like “Today the snow is thick as tar” takes another white, blank feature—snow—and compares it to something that is practically its opposite (black, viscous, hot) but does so using a feature that is comparable, and it works: it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance that works.

These are smaller examples, nesting-doll-style, of the larger work the story is doing: taking the story of the Three Kings, changing the protagonists to the kings instead of Mary and the child, flipping a hot climate to a cold one, and turning every trope of that story to practically its opposite—except the story’s core. Again, it’s a tiny cognitive dissonance, and it works.

Why?

“Kings of Snow” starts with a definite advantage: It’s an update of a very well-known Christian story, and just like with a fairytale retelling, when we remix or update an old story, we have all the foundations that old story has built in our readers’ minds to lean on. We’ve talked in previous months about the difference between worldbuilding to construct a whole new universe, versus worldbuilding to evoke deep-seated tropes that are already there. “Kings of Snow” goes the evocation route just by virtue of being a retelling, and that gives readers a huge amount of information without ever having to put that information on the page.  The result is the tightly-packed, information-dense degree of content—and yet the clear, spare prose—you get when reading poetry, and the creation of two distinct hooks: first, the game of guessing which story this is (and the quickly paid off satisfaction of feeling that familiar click) and second, the question of why this story, here.

There was a concern from the author that as a holiday story, “Kings of Snow” might be overly predictable, and I want to address that question by suggesting that in a retelling, predictable is less a sign of failure than a tool we, as writers, use.  More than any other kind of short fiction, retellings are all about context—about what we seat around that familiar click—and less knowing what plot events are going to happen than what they mean in a new frame.

One of the primary advantages to writing a retelling, even though magazines are full of them, is the instant layering it lets us build into a story. As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, there’s generally a big push for the original in SFF, but tropes are a tool: using a familiar story lets us basically skip the establishment of the plot itself and use the advancement of the story not to introduce information, but to comment on information that readers already have from every other story on this topic. It’s a capacity for creating instant depth: the draw of the story becomes less three older characters trudging to a birth through difficult terrain, but what everything associated with the story of the Three Kings means in this particular snowy, post-apocalyptic age—and what that could mean for us now.  In religious/scriptural terms (since we’re in a Christian story), that’s an act of interpretation and application, and it lets us as writers say things that are poignant and personal if handled well.

And in “Kings of Snow” it is, I think, handled quite well.  Its mix of supporting details takes those familiar tropes and builds in, quickly, complexity.  It’s good to truly feel Gas, Bart, and Mel’s age in the difficulty of the journey, and there’s a unique task accomplished by their bickering: cast in the role of three wise elders—knowing from the original story that they are all supposed to be wise—their disagreements about the path to take, provisions, gifts, and the world both define them as characters and create a worldview that’s less about who’s right or wrong than the way people negotiate three different sets of knowledge about the world and how to make the journey.  There’s a beautiful thing being said here about different wisdoms.

That thought about how different wisdoms combine is part of what makes “Kings of Snow” feel inspiring, not didactic, despite functionally bringing the story to a halt to deliver a lecture on present circumstances.  That paragraph of backstory, on how the world ended up this way, works precisely because of how it balances the context of the post-apocalyptic Québecois setting with the retold story, and some very specific word choices that widen the scope from a lecture on how to be into a unifying sense of shared mistakes.

“Kings of Snow” defuses its condemnation in a few key ways.  Immediately following those rich jerks by not just “poor jerks”, but “us poor jerks” builds in a tone of exhausted complicity.  It’s a note of fatigue, rather than blame.  That balancing of conflict with resignation continues as the paragraph builds out the conflict into Mel’s my-people-told-you-so—which puts Gas and the people he’s angry at together, in one group, again—and then defuses that with her own complicity, and the snowmobile.  Once Gas being the descendant of slaves is brought in, this one paragraph starts to billow out into the bones of a much more complex system—not a simple equation of who’s to blame, but structures which everyone participated in, in different ways, and which brought everyone down.

I was left with the overwhelming sense that everyone contributed; everyone’s hands are dirty; everyone was part of this failure.  And most importantly, that everyone is still in this together, trudging through the snow, continually bickering about how to assign blame.  I was left with the sense of a society.

It’s that recognition on Gas’s part that “now we’re all trudging together” that, I think, makes this multilayered, difficult, vital paragraph work—and answered satisfyingly, for me, the question of why this story now?  Why this story told in this particular way?  Why would I, asked if this story is predicatable, say that even if it were, that doesn’t matter?

Retellings are about context, and the thing “Kings of Snow” doesn’t change is the story’s core. Marie is, even though we never meet her, bringing a child into the world in a dark time, and isn’t moving from where she is, because the whales are coming back, and she’s going to be there to usher that rebirth in.  Marie, is trying. And her community is showing up to bring her gifts and witness, even if they think what she’s doing with the whales is dangerous and stupid, because she has hope.

Which is why it’s an excellent stroke of detail to make the gift is a piece of soapstone: something part of several northern cultures, and of a value that’s not immediate, but long-term.  It’s a beautifully appropriate gift, thematically speaking: a metaphor for a child, or a new world; a gift that screams potential, yet to be shaped; a gift that will, with good work and luck, become beautiful. That’s a necessary story for many readers right now, and an important repositioning of the narrative of the three kings: one of people from an older world doing a physically and emotionally difficult journey, because at the end is hope.

In most of the English-speaking world, which is where the bulk of our audience is, we’re in fairly desperate political times for people all across the spectrum of belief.  I’m personally expecting an upsurge in art that has a message.  We write what we’re living, breathing, and feeling every day, and when political and social upheaval is what we’re living, fiction organized around a message is going to show up more and more.

“Kings of Snow” does this job very well, in a short space, using techniques that make a lot of the standard pitfalls of fiction actually work in its favour. I think it’s ready to place with a market.

Best of luck with this piece, and thank you for it.

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

Editor’s Choice Review January 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.

Chronicles of Dorin: Chapter IV (Part 1 of 2) by Siby Plathottam

First of all, a standard disclaimer:

There is no wrong way to write a draft, especially a first draft. However the words need to get from your mind to the page, that’s how they have to do it. The time to worry about everything else comes later in the process.

When you’re concentrating on getting the words down, pretty much anything goes. There’s no pressing need to worry about what exactly those words are until it’s time for the final polish. At that point however, it pays to understand your own process, whether you draft in quick sketches and fill in later, or put in all the things and then pare and prune until the outlines of the story are perfectly clear.

Here I think there’s a tendency toward the latter process, but also a desire to be totally clear on the level of words and sentences, to spell out in detail exactly what’s going on and why. As I read, I got a sense that the author wants very much for me to understand what each word and sentence means. There’s a bit of playfulness, too, and an occasional fillip of metaphor or lovingly crafted simile.

The chapter has a nice straightforward story line. Even without reading the earlier chapters or the summary the author has provided, I can mostly tell who’s who. I don’t wonder about what’s happening at any given point, and at the end I can see where the plot is going.

That same impulse toward clarity extends to the prose. Words and actions and concepts are modified and modified again with additional details. For example:

  • Catey nodded in reply…
  • Gianna only nodded gloomily in reply.
  • Catey dictated a reply to her that wetted the house mistress’s eyes as she wrote it onto a parchment with an ink quill.
  • Everyone was puzzled but they didn’t argue with the inspector, and followed Mistress Gianna as she led them to a room upstairs.

While it’s a laudable thing to try for minimal ambiguity in one’s prose, past a certain point the prose risks becoming redundant. The same general ideas repeat, sometimes in multiple forms, as if the author doesn’t quite trust the reader to get what she’s trying to say.

In the first two examples, Catey and Giana are responding affirmatively to comments made by other characters. We don’t need to be told in so many words that they’re responding (or replying—this word is an author favorite). Just the nod is enough. It tells the reader all she needs to know.

In the third example, we have an interesting combination of too much and not quite enough. “Dictated” implies that Catey is speaking and Gianna is writing the words down. The detail of the parchment establishes a bit of worldbuilding—we’re in a society that uses cured animal skin rather than paper, and the presence of a quill reinforces the sense of a preindustrial past. But ink seems redundant. I think most fantasy readers would know that when a person writes with a quill, the person is using ink. No need to specify; the author can trust the reader to pick up the implication.

There’s another layer here, too. Is it essential to the plot in this particular instance for the reader to know what writing materials Gianna is using? Does it move the story forward at this exact point? Can we get all the information we need, right here and now, if we’re simply told Gianna is writing what Catey dictates?

At the same time, the rest of the sentence made me stop and squint and try to figure out exactly what the author is trying to do. “Wetted” isn’t quite the word for Gianna’s emotional (and physical) reaction. I feel as if I need a different term, and maybe more than one word, in order to get a proper sense of what’s happening to her.

The final example combines concise writing in the first half and redundancy in the second. What we most need to know is that she leads everybody upstairs. It’s not essential to the story, right at this point, to know into what kind of space she leads them. “She led them upstairs” gets the job done and lets us keep our focus on what’s happening downstairs.

In writing, clarity and focus are not necessarily the same thing. A writer can keep adding details to clarify what she’s talking about, but focused writing zeroes in on a much smaller number of essential details. These are the details that can’t be left out, that the reader must have in order to understand what’s happening. Everything else is gravy–nice to have, enhances the flavor, but a little goes a long way.

Choosing just the right word helps, too. Sometimes we want to shake things up, try a different way of saying what we’re trying to say, enjoy a bit of figurative language. That can work well, but as always, we have to be sure the word really means what we want it to mean. We also have to make sure that when we pause to develop an image, that development serves a purpose. The image has a reason to be there: it advances the story, develops the character, enhances the setting.

It’s all about telling the story in the clearest and strongest and most effective way possible. Vivid and believable characters, well-crafted dialogue, fully realized world and setting, all begin with the choice of words. Both the words we do use, and the ones that, as we prune and polish, we choose to leave out.

I call that “Narrative Economy.” Every word has a role to play, and each one earns its keep.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review January 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.

Skipjack by Eli Zaren

I like the bones of this. It’s got slam-bang space ­action, gengineered monkeys, and a great last line. It really does echo the Heinlein “juveniles,” in a potentially great way.

Three things jump out at me in this draft. I believe they’re all fixable, though one might need some changes in the worldbuilding.

1. There-Was-Itis

This is the last thing to worry about in revision, when the big-ticket items have been dealt with and it’s time to get down to the sentence level, but it’s the first thing a reader notices. So I’m putting it here. It’s especially important in a short story, where every word has to count.

The prose is full of passive constructions and extra words, especially forms of the verb “to be.” Here’s the first sentence:

The explosion in the ship’s air plant was a dead giveaway that something was seriously wrong.

The story literally opens with a bang, but the sentence is passive, and though it’s short by word count, it feels leisurely and low on tension. We’re missing a viewpoint. Who’s telling the story? How do they know there’s an explosion? Where are they, and what are they experiencing—physically and emotionally?

A shift to active voice and an actual, physical point of view would help the reader get straight into the story and sympathizing with the protagonist from the first word. Likewise, as the story goes on, count the number of “was” constructions, and especially “there was.” Can you replace every one of them with an active construction?

I am by no means allergic to the verb “to be,” and I believe this verb, and the passive voice in general, has a definite place in a well-crafted narrative. But a little goes a long way. Especially in action scenes, the more active the prose itself is, the more effective the action tends to be.

That’s why I’m suggesting a full-on carpet-bombing of “there was” constructions here. Get rid of it all, then see how it reads. You can always put a few back in where it’s most effective, or where the pacing needs a breather.

2. Infodumpage

Science fiction has had a long love affair with exposition. Golden Age SF especially adores its big chunks of worldbuilding, just as cozy mysteries love to gather all the suspects in the library for a final explication of the sleuth’s investigation. This story has a Golden-Age feel, and a high percentage of pauses in the narrative while we learn about this particular world.

The problem is that this is a short story, which means there’s much less available space for background details than there would be in a longer piece. If this were the first chapter of a novel, or even a novella, the chunks of exposition would have more room to expand, but at this length, they crowd out other key elements of story: characterization, physical and emotional setting, action and plot movement.

I would suggest pulling out all the expository chunks and choosing from each the one or two (or at most three) absolutely essential details—details without which the story can’t go forward, or the characterization can’t work, or the setting doesn’t make sense. Be ruthless. As with passive verbs, you can always put a few (a very few) back in if they absolutely can’t be missed.

Then, once you’ve done triage on the details, think about how many of them can transform from exposition into action—from tell into show. I love the monkeys. Can you show them doing their thing, give a detail or two of Carmen interacting with them, bring us in close and let us see how they work and why? You may actually find that the word count drops, even while the story’s effectiveness rises. That’s the key to really strong short fiction: making every word count.

3. The Gender Thing

Big props to this story for going there with a female protagonist. That’s both timely and Heinleinian, and it has great potential for making this story work on both levels.

I do, however, have questions about the draft as written.

In 1957, an all-male spaceforce was default. The idea that a female could play with the boys was quite radical, and the narrative might indeed focus on the girly aspects: hair, makeup, and all like that. And she would very probably sit down and keep quiet and assume a subordinate role, above and beyond actual factors of rank or seniority. Because that’s how women had to roll.

It is, however, 2017. Women have been going into space for several decades now, and the US astronaut program is aiming for gender parity. Military forces worldwide are on that same trajectory—not just in the US.

My question therefore is, if your future has taken women’s roles back to 1957, why? What happened? How did an apparently American-based culture regress to this extent—and what has now happened to change that, so that Carmen is allowed to serve as sole female in an all-male crew?

It’s not so much that you need more infodumps, as that there needs to be an underlying sense of how we get from where we are now to where Carmen is. The reason for that, in terms of the story, is that in a world that strongly dominated by males, a woman cannot simply decide she wants to go into space. The barriers to her doing so will be all but insurmountable, and she will have to fight every step of the way to even get near a ship, let alone be allowed to serve as crew on one.

Research the history of women in NASA (start with Hidden Figures—book and film), but also in the Navy and submarine corps, and the history of women in combat. This will give you some context. It will also give you some insight into Carmen’s state of mind and the state of mind of her fellow crewmen.

Or, you might take another direction and open up the world to greater gender parity, so that the ship has a mixed crew and Carmen’s relatively casual decision to go into space makes sense. Then she’s subordinate because she’s the new kid on board. Not because of her gender.

I suspect the latter may be less complicated in terms of rethinking and revision, because the story right now is about the overall crisis with the pirates and the personal crisis with Carmen and her uncle. If you get into gender politics, you’ll change the story from the bottom up, especially if the pirates have gender parity (or a facsimile thereof) and the space force is Patriarchy Central.

I definitely think this aspect of the story needs some rethinking. It sounds from your comments that Carmen is insisting you tell her story. But which story it is, and how she tells it, is up to you (and, of course, Carmen).

Best of luck to you, Carmen, and the space pirates.

–Judith Tarr