Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, 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.

RAI by Alex Taylor

This chapter has some interesting things going on. It sets up a classic conflict between artificial and human intelligence (with further conflicts among the humans), and lets us see how the AI’s thought processes work. The computer language operates through analogies to human experience, which adds a layer of accessibility for the human reader.

I’d like to talk about two things in this Editor’s Choice.

1. Whom are you writing for?

Every written work has an intended audience. It may be written for the writer’s own taste and level of knowledge—as a sort of private note-to-self, with no accommodation made for others. Or it may be written for a particular set of readers—defined either broadly or narrowly depending on what the writer wants her work to accomplish.

Since this is a novel and has been submitted to this workshop for critique, I can assume it’s written for a genre-savvy audience. It’s not labeled for younger readers; it aims, then, at the adult reader of science fiction. I am picking up those signals in subject matter, setting and characters, and arc of the plot as far as the chapter lets us see.

The chapter presumes a reader who is computer-literate, who can pick up on finer points of coding and language, and who has a fairly sophisticated understanding of how programming and programmers operate. That’s a fine thing for a hard science fiction novel. But the chapter as is could use a little polish, and some pruning of the opening section.

The long passage of coding gibberish does establish the utter chaos that overwhelms Rai. Even for the educated reader, however, that’s a lot of data-barf. Just as with real barf, a little goes a long way. A line or two, with a concise indication that this is a somewhat lengthy process, would make the point quite as effectively and rather more mercifully for the reader’s eyes.

“A little goes a long way” is a useful maxim in general. Unconventional narrative techniques and unusual rhetorical and contextual tricks are great fun, but the writer has to walk the line between too much and not enough.

The educated reader will sit still longer for abstruse and arcane lore, but it never hurts to think about the less educated reader, too. This reader comes to the story for plot and characters and setting—all those good things—but will skim over the arcana. A big wall of it may bounce him out altogether. If there’s just enough to keep the knowledgeable reader engaged, but not so much that the more casual reader gives up and leaves, there’s your sweet spot.

2. Framing and Blocking of Scenes

The opening sequence is fairly clear about what is happening and to whom. Once the chapter moves on the human characters, however, it becomes harder to follow. Part of that may be the formatting: one of the simplest ways to signal a change of setting, viewpoint, or timeline is a plain old line space.

Within these different scenes, however, there’s a tendency to skip connections. Characters seem to strobe from place to place and from timeline to timeline. Conversations pop up without a clear sense of where or when they happen. Events are described somewhat nonlinearly; it’s difficult to tell if a scene is happening sequentially, if it’s a flashback, or if the narrative has jumped ahead.

I would recommend taking some time to block out each scene. Figure out when it happens and where it’s set, and make sure it’s clear where everybody is. If characters are moving around, check to be sure you’ve let the reader see them move.

It is perfectly acceptable to jump from scene to scene without obvious transitions—“they walked here,” “two hours later,” “meanwhile, back at the bot farm”—but the scene should establish who-what-where-when with enough clarity that the reader doesn’t have to stop and hunt for a context. When pulling in information from the past or foreshadowing the future, give it a little space to breathe. Let it stand out slightly. Slow down a bit, let us see the change of time or place. Frame the scene with a line or a phrase, so that we get a sense of where we are and when, and how that time and place emerge out of the last scene and move the story forward into the next.

Yes, this works with flashbacks and braided timelines, too. It’s a matter of making sure each section of the story is clearly delineated. We should be able to follow it wherever it goes, and still keep track of the larger dimensions of the plot.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, 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.

India World by Amit Gupta

“India World” caught my eye this month with its inversion of the Western immigrant narrative: an exploration of the gap between our stories about a place and what they truly are—and how stories change what a place can be. This piece outlines a sincere exploration of what home, country, and citizenship mean, but when the places and names are peeled back, it’s an exploration whose subtext is incredibly at odds with what the surface details are saying. This month, I’d like to discuss subtext, and how we can check—and be confident—that we’re in control of what our stories say below the surface.

On the surface, “India World” is already a fairly smooth and easy read: it’s the kind of idea fiction that is more invested in explaining its thesis than inferring it through shown action, but Rohit is a sufficiently sympathetic protagonist—and the way he’s torn between the parts of Delhi that remind him of his family and his unsteadiness with the rest of modern India a sufficiently compelling conflict—that the story engages me to the end. I didn’t have bobbles, pacing stresses, or issues with the surface of the work.

Even more interesting is the way “India World” treats stories about places. There’s a powerful statement being made about the way people live in assumptions and histories, not present-day realities, by the way Rohit’s parents haven’t matched their “land of opportunity” narrative to the air quality warnings they live under in San Jose; the idea of a theme park for white colonialist visitors where staff are rated on obsequiousness and deference, one nobody Indian-born wants to work at; Rohit’s father putting on the cowboy accent and Rohit, at work, being rated on his accent and given a failing grade while his supervisor derides his country to his face as a cultural wasteland. We never see that bright future India, the one that produces all the cutting-edge technology and has gained ascendance on the world stage. It’s a ghost lurking outside India World’s attractions. We only hear stories about it.

It’s a fascinating set of questions, but it’s where “India World” takes the gap between stories about places and their realities that I ultimately feel could use the most work and thought in the next draft—and that comes through in the subtext.

When I strip back everything, the action of the plot is: Rohit, who is “confused” about his cultural identity and heritage, goes back to his family’s country of origin to work a menial job and is taken under the wing of a more socially powerful older man. A speech from that older man inspires him sufficiently to immediately correct his inability to perform certain parts of his job, and he continues to advance via personal favoritism. No one else Indian-born wants to speak or interact with him outside his specific role. Ultimately, given the opportunity for indentured labour in India toward a potential permanent home there, he is called home to make—almost in his own words—America great again by reconnecting it with its historical pride, because it is good for immigrants to go home to their original countries and work on problems there instead of moving to more developed ones for a better life.

It’s a direct inversion of the immigrant experience, and I suspect that’s a commentary. But the question that left me with is: Whose story is that about how the world works? Whose values are these, really?

On the surface, “India World” sketches out an interesting future that’s doing some thinking about what makes a family, a home, and a culture. But what a story believes—what it truly endorses—is less about what it says than what, in that story, works: which actions are actually rewarded by results. And it’s hard for me as a reader to shake that “opportunities are created, not given” sounds a great deal like right-wing American pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; that Rohit’s triumphant choice to return sounds a lot like white American “immigrants go home”; that the idea that “education in who we had been, and who we could be again” being more important than actual economies and pragmatic skills training and resources has the waft of propaganda; that “if we can just remind ourselves of who we once were, maybe we can rise again” is one hair away from the established political slogan of people who run concentration camps for brown children.

“India World” is a story about the stories we tell; any story “India World” tells about India, America, Rohit, being bicultural, and how the world works is going to call extra attention to itself with readers—because “India World” has already asked us to pay attention to the gaps between stories and the real. Its readers are primed to notice what’s going on below the surface, what doesn’t fit.

And the story that is happening below the surface is, right now, not a fit with the story on top: an immigrant having the brutal and exploitative immigrant experience in India, instead of America, and rejecting it on the surface—despite completely, uncritically embracing every story America tells about how that brutal and exploitative experience is actually good below the surface. Even though India is not the most right-wing and isolationist version of America; it has its own ways of doing things, values, failure points, and stories.

So after a few reads of “India World” my main, and sole question is: Why is the vision of a world-leading, innovating India not more than a reskinned repeat of the American South? What is India’s future?

I want to be plain: I very strongly feel there is strong potential in this piece to do interesting, sincere, heartfelt work on the questions it’s already raising—what makes a place real, what makes a person real, what you do when you’re not quite enough for either of your cultures. There are already tantalizing hints laid that Rohit’s modern India isn’t all that it seems, but they’re currently undeveloped: both the tiny warning spike of a surveillance culture in the jalebi wala’s food contamination panic and Chandra’s slight hint about caste limitations are incredibly telling details—as is the incredibly exploitative path Rohit faces to Indian permanent residency status—but none of them quite pay off.

I’m interested in where those hints lead, and what the India of this story actually looks like and why, and what the implications of it are. In short, what I would suggest is the strongest opportunity to develop “India World” in future drafts is basically doing the core work of science fiction: taking some significant time to think about what strengths, shortcomings, failure points, quirks, and patterns a future, world-class-economy India would have, extrapolating them from the now, and working Rohit’s experience to include that place.

I’d love to see this story take into account what that thriving and unequal India’s values would be. Even if it ended up treating people like Rohit and Chandra in similarly cruel ways, I’d like to see it have its own reasons—ones that feel less pasted from another culture—with the goal of making its text and subtext match: so I, as a reader, could believe Chandra when he talks about throwing off colonialism without seeing it be enacted absolutely through “India World”.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Horror

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

Spore Ghoul Version 2 by Michael Curl

What makes us remember a horror story?  There are many possibilities.  It could be a twist ending, or a constant atmosphere of dread, or a particular character, or a relationship, or a decision, or a moment when we felt true fear.  Or it could be an image the story forms in our brains.  I felt a really memorable image etching itself into my brain several times in this story.

  • She was free now, to worm herself into every crevice, to name unnamed caves, and to delve into lakes to feed on the bodies of fish born without eyes.
  • Her mind counted days with enzyme-etched numbers across the walls, floors, and ceilings.
  • She built little dolls from thick ropes of herself, like her father had once made from straw, only these moved. 
  • She felt the soft pudding inside Isabella’s head.

These are strong and fresh and disturbing.  They make me very excited to imagine them.  This image of Margaret forms a strong heart for the story.

I think other elements in the story could better maximize the power of this heart.  The areas I want to discuss mainly fall into two areas:  plot and style.

I don’t think the plot effectively builds to Margaret’s transformation or adds significance to Margaret’s transformation.  Her goal at the start could be clearer, and the causal chain that leads to her transformation could be stronger.  Right now, I get the sense that Margaret’s goal in going to the caves to lose her virginity, but it’s unclear how she plans to do this.  It seems like couples go to the caves, so how would she find someone there?  For example, perhaps Margaret is going to the cave to intercept Jean and Isabella and demand Jean leave Isabella alone and try to convince him to choose her instead.  She could confront them and touch Jean’s face at a key moment, expecting to find him sympathetic but instead finding he’s laughing at her.  This could so horrify her that she would run deeper into the caves and beat her hands against the walls and perhaps find a drop and jump to kill herself.  This would allow her to be driving the action and to have one event cause the next (a causal chain), so it doesn’t feel like the author is manipulating the story.  Right now, the rain, Margaret’s reaction to the rain, and her fall feel manipulated by the author.

Some trauma related to her hands–feeling Jean’s mocking expression–could better tie to her multiplicity of hands, to wanting to feel things to block out that earlier sensation.  The more all these pieces work together, the more powerful they will be.

Another plot element that could be strengthened is the overall structure.  For me, structure is defined by the protagonist’s goals.  Right now, Margaret’s goal seems at first to lose her virginity in the caves.  Once she’s injured, her goal is to survive.  Once she dies, her goal is unclear, but perhaps to explore and enjoy her new abilities.  I think her goals need to be clearer.  The middle goal, to survive, doesn’t work very well because she has no power to struggle to achieve it, and her desire to survive doesn’t have any impact on the rest of the story (so it’s not part of a strong causal chain).  If, instead, she kills herself (just one possibility), then we could go from her goal to get Jean (which ends with her giving up and killing herself); to her goal to feel many other things with her hands and enjoy her new existence, forgetting about Jean; to finding she’s still upset about Jean, confronting him, and killing him.  This would again allow Margaret to be more strongly driving the story, create a clearer cause for that final confrontation, and create a clearer emotional arc for Margaret and the story.

One aspect of style that I think could be improved is the flow.  I have a blog post about flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.  It explains how a passage flows when one sentence makes us curious about a particular thing, and the next sentence discusses that very thing.  I found myself confused and brought up short a number of times in the story when one sentence did not flow into the next.  The first paragraph, for example, feels quite disjointed.  The first sentence makes me want to know how far the cave actually is, but the second sentence has Margaret thinking she shouldn’t have gone alone.  The second sentence makes me want to know why she thinks that (what dangers she perceives), but the third sentence describes her walking ahead in a competent, seemingly safe way.  Improving the flow will allow readers to fall into the story and have a more immersive and vivid experience.

Another element that combines both plot and style is pacing.  Key moments in a story should be slowed down (dilated) with intense description.  Unimportant moments should be sped up with recapitulation.  This is a key element in horror, trapping readers in important moments and making them feel those moments intensely.  Many important moments in this story are rushed over, so they don’t carry the power they might.  One example is the section between “A wet finger slithered around her foot” and “her hands tasting the wet tang of salt.”  That should probably be about 4 times as long as it currently is.

I really enjoy some of the imagery in this story.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Science Fiction

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

Copper Bride by C.K. Attner

I always appreciate a good author’s note when I’m reviewing submissions for an Editor’s Choice. The note on this chapter is excellent. It sums up the story so far, and points readers toward the issues that the author particularly wants to address. It also gives me a sense of what’s been happening with the revision process.

I’d like to talk about one issue which, as I understand from the note, has drawn attention from earlier reviewers. I think I see, here and there, where the text has been revised with it in mind. Penn’s characterization, and especially her motivation for doing what she does, is crucial because she’s both the protagonist and (at least in this chapter) the sole viewpoint character.

The note does a pretty good job of describing what the author wants to accomplish here. Penn comes across in this draft as naive and rather innocent, not picking up on the clues that an alert reader might pick up—the skulls, the braids, the significance of Penn’s hair color. It seems clear that this is a riff on the Bluebeard story (with a strong set of references to Mad Max: Fury Road). Some of that may be denial, but mostly she seems focused on her personal reactions to Barton’s physical presence. She rationalizes those reactions, tells herself everything’s fine, and makes assumptions about what’s going on that aren’t borne out by what other characters say and do.

This level of cluelessness can be very effective, especially if it sets the character up for some hard truths later on in the story. One thing that might help achieve this end would be to rethink some of ways in which the narrative presents Penn.

I was struck as I read by how most of her actions and reactions are external. We see what she sees, we see what others do around and to her. We hear what she says and what people say to her. We get descriptions of the setting and the events of the story.

What we don’t get, except in a handful of places, is a sense of living in Penn’s skin. She sees, she hears, she moves and is moved around. But we’re missing the deeper aspects of being Penn, how it feels to live in her body, what it does to her to see and hear and experience these events.

In the scene in which Barton cuts her hair, we get a bit of what could be. She’s clearly upset, and she expresses it by asking silent rhetorical questions—a kind of internal monologue that dips below the surface and gives us a bit of insight into her emotional life. A little of this goes a long way, but it’s a start.

When Barton embraces her, a similar thing happens. She feels as well as acts and talks. There’s a little more depth, a broader range of emotions, and we see how the moment affects her physically. That pang in the gut is an example of what we should see more of in the chapter.

In revision, maybe take on a challenge: In each scene, add one more layer of thought, feeling, reaction and response. If someone speaks to Penn, what is their tone? How does that tone affect Penn? Does that change what she does or how she responds? If she’s acting or being acted upon, what’s going on underneath? What is it like from the inside?

Maybe even change things up a bit, and switch to first person—not necessarily as a permanent change, but as a way of seeing more deeply into Penn’s character. Imagine that it’s you in this situation. How would you feel? What would you do or say? If it’s totally the opposite of what Penn does, think about why. How are you different from each other? What makes you different? What drives Penn to want what she wants and to do what she does, versus how you would do it?

Much of characterization happens on the inside, in the character’s mind and heart. Once you’ve learned to wear a character’s skin, it becomes easier to figure out what she’s doing and why, and from there, to develop the arc of her emotions as well as her actions. Then she’ll come alive on the page.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Fantasy

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

The Chained Prophets, Opening Chapter by Michael Kinn

There are a lot of good things happening in this opening chapter. It’s ambitious in its scope, and it stretches the boundaries of genre and craft in interesting ways. It portrays personal and family dynamics that contemporary readers can relate to, even while its central characters represent a rare and unusual spectrum of human experience.

I get the feeling that the author has thought carefully about these characters, and tried hard to imagine what it must be like to live in their heads and bodies. There’s a good deal of thinking through, in short: looking past the Cool Idea to the ramifications, its effect not only on the twins but on the world around them and the people they encounter in the course of the story.

The structure of the plot as it’s evident so far is solid enough, whatever may happen in later chapters. I’m fine with the shifts of viewpoint—for the most part it’s clear who’s thinking what and when, and I don’t find it confusing; in general I get why the shifts are necessary, and they generally serve a purpose in the narrative. Here I’d like to focus on an aspect of craft that’s usually addressed later in the process: the author’s use and choice of words.

In writing draft, writers often repeat the same information over and over, setting it down as it occurs to them or as it seems appropriate. That’s a perfectly valid way to write a draft, but in revision, the emphasis shifts from getting the words on the page to making the story clear and comprehensible to the reader.

At this point, the writer learns to ask what the reader needs to know and when she should know it. Is this information absolutely necessary right here and now? Am I providing enough information to satisfy the reader, but not so much that it overwhelms her or throws her out of the story? How much is enough, and how much is too much? If I repeat the same information in the same words, am I doing it intentionally, for effect, or have I lost track of what I said and how I said it? Can I eliminate the repetition, or find different ways to say what I need to say?

Many times it’s a trust issue. Trust the reader to get it the first time. She may need an occasional reminder, but probably not multiple times in the same scene. The way one twin feels the other’s scowl, for example, is a great detail and shows the care with which the author has imagined these characters. Because it’s so great however, and so evidently thought through, it only needs to be mentioned once in a while. It may be more effective to show other ways in which the twins share physical as well as emotional reactions.

In order to keep the reader reading, it’s important to keep the story moving. Repetition, along with blocks of exposition and backstory, acts as a series of speed bumps. Again, when revising, ask lots of questions. Do I want the story to pause here while I explain or expand? Have I earned the reader’s goodwill enough (especially at the beginning) to keep her reading while I fill in the background or explain why the characters are doing what they’re doing? Can I pare down my explanation to a few words that clarify what’s happening without stalling the action? Do I need the explanation at all here, or can I shift it to another part of the story? If I do that, will it work better, be clearer, engage the reader more, if I present it as a scene or a flashback? And if I do present it as a flashback, will the reader be able to shift in and out of the different timelines without losing track of each one?

I would suggest an experiment: going through the draft and cutting all repetitions of the same words and phrases or the same thoughts and actions, and then reading what’s left to see if any of these phrases need to go back in. If they do, might there be other ways to show what’s happening? Are there other words and phrases that would work as well while at the same time offering new insights into the story and the characters?

Check to make sure the words are the right words, as well. There are some odd usages here and there. For example:

We only need to avoid Terric from catching us unaware–Is avoid meant to be a synonym for prevent?

eager to fend up a surprise capture—The more usual phrase would be fend off.

He sensed Mher reach—More likely phrasing would be either He felt Mher reach or He sensed Mher reaching.

Once the prose matches the care and attention paid to the worldbuilding and the characters, the novel will be stronger, and the line of the story will be clearer and more compelling. It’s a good start, and it will be even better. Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Short Story

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

No One Left To Save by Dave Herz

I was struck this month by the goofy, gutshot way “No One Left to Save” tackles its central ethical question: what do you do with a nuclear payload when there’s nothing left to lose? While this piece manages to juggle action, genuine emotion, a philosophical problem worth considering, and a slightly tragic screwball feel, I felt the ending didn’t quite bring all those elements home. So this month, I’d like to dig into the difference between resolving the surface plot conflict and the deeper emotional or thematic conflict we’ve set up, and how to bring those closer to each other so the end of a story satisfies readers.

Well-paced, well-planned, and built around an absolutely solid plot twist, “No One Left to Save” sets up, despite its tongue-in-cheek and fairly dry sense of humour, a serious dilemma from the second scene. With the entire crew reeling from their own personal losses and taking very different sides, it’s an effective and compelling engine for story, one which keeps its stakes fresh and relevant until the last paragraphs.

The tone is also key in making “No One Left to Save” work for me: the slight absurdity of starting with Joseph’s decision-making lifehacks conveys something of the futile feeling of staring into a tragedy without making the story itself so heavy I can’t read on. Lines like “Joseph underlined everyone twice for emphasis” and the Happy Show soundtrack are legitimately funny, and work as a solid counterbalance to the grimness of the situation—and tiny, awful details like Nasrine’s burn marks, where the real emotional impact of what’s just happened above peeks through. It’s legitimately impactful to see the slightly goofy and definitely dark idea of torture through kids’ program jingle just serve to remind Joseph how much he loves—and misses—his family, and there’s real skill on display here in how those emotional moments weave together with thrillerlike action and sidelong humour, keeping the story balanced and moving without miring it in awfulness or getting so unserious that the stakes are undermined.

However, the side effect of that combination is that the emotional conflict (Joseph’s sense of responsibility versus his personal grief) and the plot-level conflict (nuke Garland or not?) aren’t always given the same depth and screen time, and that means when Joseph takes a third way and pulls something unknown to the reader out from up his sleeve, it resolves the plot conflict, but in a way that feels significantly weightless. If Joseph had a self-destruct code from High Command all this time, why bother with the general escapades of the previous scenes? Garland is saved, but Joseph’s complex feelings about duty, grief, and children terminate in an abrupt bullet and an explosion, and leaves the question of his grief and what he’s doing with it—the emotional engine of the whole story—running in thin air, unresolved.

This is where the question of emotional versus plot conflicts come into play—and where the two pull apart. Readers take a few cues from a story to figure out what the most important issue is, one of the simplest being page space spent on a question—and “No One Left to Save” spends a lot of page space on Joseph wrestling with the question of ending children’s lives explicitly because of his family, his own children. His reaction to Serena’s threat is a feeling of peace, but that’s one line of prose; there’s no explicit tip into proactively choosing to die for this—a very different headspace indeed. What I remember as the reader is the feeling that got the page weight: grief, and love, and wanting people to live—and his actions in the ending as written does not follow reasonably from that tone. That leaves an overall feeling of a mismatch in play between what the story’s telling us is the problem and the problem it solves. The solution’s reasonably clever, but what I was reading “No One Left to Save” for was its goofy side, its snarky side, its loving side—all those things that counterbalanced the grimness and made the piece so readable. In short, its heart.

What I’d suggest in addressing that is patching from either side, depending on the effect you’re looking to achieve: a grimmer story that sets up that Twilight-Zone plot twist of the self-destruct code, or the more wryly screwball story that brings humanity into a somewhat stock situation. Depending on which end the revisions come from—and which result they move towards—I’d look to bridge that gap by either adjusting page weight to emphasize the emotion that leads logically to that decision, or thinking back through the decision to see if one that flows more logically from Joseph’s headspace as described can be found. Either way, it’s substantive work, but the kind of work that’ll bring what happens—the plot!—and why it happens closer together so the story feels like a unity.

In terms of more minor suggestions: I’m not entirely sure that the opening scene works for me. It’s beautifully written in and of itself in terms of texture, sensory information, and effect, but the tone never matches the rest of the story’s claustrophobic atmosphere; that perspective is never revisited. It ends up feeling extraneous, when the information about what’s at stake—and what happened to Arkhaven—is already embedded in the second scene. As it stands, I feel like it just delays the actual start of action: Joseph’s briefing.

This is also marked as a middle draft, which means it’s probably already slated for more polish, but I’d also suggest a revision that looked at line-by-line edits: from checking on the rhythm of prose to trimming out duplicate information, and finding ways to make lines like “Nasrine smiled. ‘You’re welcome. We are old friends, after all.'” potentially less obviously designed to give information to the reader over showing how two old friends would, more naturally, talk. I think there’s a chance of trimming a few hundred words out of this piece just on small edits, tightening, and line-by-line work, and making it more accessible for magazines with wordcount caps in the process.

I think there’s great potential here for an impactful, claustrophobic, meaningful narrative that doesn’t lose its tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and humanity—with a few edits and some careful thought about what kind of action would close the question Joseph’s relationship with his family opened.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Fantasy

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

Code of Dragons And Warriors Chapter One by Kit Davis

I am a complete sucker for dragon fantasies. I love them all—film, television, and of course, prose fiction (and poems, too). I Impressed as a teen on McCaffrey’s bonded human-dragon pairs, and I adore the dragons of Le Guin’s Earthsea.

The Author’s Note of this chapter asks us to be honest if we feel we’ve seen it all before. My honest response is, It doesn’t matter. If the author does it right, even the oldest trope can be new again—and the reader will love it both because it is a beloved trope, and because it’s well done.

There’s lots of potential here. The dragon’s viewpoint is a lovely touch, and the name Mezentius has a classic fantasy resonance. The setting is beautiful, too, and I very much like the sense of the numbers and varieties of dragons. I’m a big fan of Novik’s Temeraire books, and appreciate the echoes here.

In revision, I would suggest some rethinking and restructuring of the chapter. This draft focuses on Mezentius as he contemplates the gathering of dragons and fills in the backstory. He sits on his peak and reflects on the state of the world and the dragons’ role in it, until the messenger he’s sent out comes to report on the latest developments. Then the meeting begins, and the dragons discuss the situation and decide what to do about it.

I call this narrative technique “offstaging.” Characters think or talk about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening in the present, and discuss what to do in the future. It’s a kind of filter; it separates the reader from the action. The thing the reader has come for, the story itself, happens offstage.

There is a lot of backstory to present here, and a complex political and cultural and social setting which needs to be established as the novel begins. The reader has numerous questions, and the writer’s challenge is to answer them in ways that both get the story started and leave enough mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. What do we need to know and when do we need to know it? How much is enough for clarity, and how much is too much?

The same applies to events that happen before the novel opens. The usual rule of thumb is to begin as close to the end as we can, and fill in the rest through exposition and flashbacks. But again, how exactly do we do this while also keeping the plot moving and the reader engaged?

Mezentius’ viewpoint, here, serves as a device for conveying information. We get the story so far and the setting and background as he sees it. What we’re getting less of is actual, immediate, live and active story. Even the council, while it shows us some of the interactions among the different factions dragons, is primarily characters talking about events rather than living them.

While I like the framing device of Mezentius on the peak—it’s visually beautiful and offers a nice bit of insight into the world and the dragons—as a reader I would like to see more of what he’s pondering and everyone is talking about. Rather than being told what’s happening elsewhere, could we see some of it? A scene or two that lets us be right there, living it with the characters? Can we live through Canace’s death in a flashback as Mezentius experiences it, as a dramatized scene? If Renke’s own viewpoint adds too many to the novel as a whole, might he relate one significant example of everything he’s seen, as a scene with a beginning and a middle and an end, summing up all the rest in a short but powerful story-within-a-story? Can he tell us what happened in one place, what he did and how he felt and what other people did and felt around him?

Much of what the council plans to do might turn into scenes later in the novel. Let us know that they discussed the state of the world and made plans that will be executed as time goes on, but leave those to be revealed as they become relevant. What matters here is that they met, and we get to see why and get some sense both emotionally and factually of what they’re reacting to. Let us see and feel and experience the various chunks of exposition when we absolutely need to know them, when they can be a part of the story as it happens. Here, just give us a detail or two that tells us what’s most important, which, as I read it, is Canace’s death and the fact that some dragons are blaming it on humans.

If the chapter focuses on one major plot point, the reader has a clear sense of what the novel is about. Likewise, if the story is told in direct scenes rather than in exposition and conversation, it’s that much stronger and more memorable. The reader gets to be there with the characters, experiencing the story as it happens—whether in the story-present or as flashbacks from the past.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Science Fiction

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

The Double War by Hunter Ross

There are some great things going on in this submission. The setup is classic space opera, with political intrigue mixed up with family drama, and the events of the chapter are nice and dramatic.

In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about the art (and craft) of conveying emotion. This is one of the key elements of characterization. It’s also highly relevant to the development of tension and suspense.

Raquel’s situation is fundamentally tense, from her ethnic identity through her conflicts in the workplace to the overt drama of the crash. There’s quite a bit of suspense: when we meet her, she’s late to work, and she’s further delayed by the encounter with the old woman, which provides insight into Raquel’s personal history as well as the broader political landscape—and offers us a Chekovian gun-on-the-mantlepiece in the form of the contraband sheath. Then the events of the crash unfold, beginning with the truncated distress call.

This is all excellent drama, and sets up a whole range of plot-material for the rest of the novel. In this draft however, the prose hasn’t quite caught up. It serves as a kind of scaffolding, framing the scenes and setting the characters in place, with blocks of exposition and backstory.

There are some indications of what the story can be with further revision. The crash has flashes of strong drama, and the characters’ distress comes through, as does a degree of the tension between Raquel and her brother. The story moves. It pulls the reader forward from page to page and into the next chapter.

To help deepen the drama and heighten the tension, I would suggest paring the exposition down as ruthlessly as possible. Rather than listing the contents of the medical kit, for example, focus on what’s directly relevant at that moment. The fact of the kit’s existence implies the rest; what the reader needs to know, right there and then, is what Raquel pulls out of it to do what she can for the Minister. It’s all she can find, it’s the best she can manage. There’s the tension, and the suspense is the worry that it might not be enough to save the Minister’s life.

Look out, too, for the order in which details appear. Think about what a character will logically see and when. Watch for slippage: the old woman describes herself as a Tawa early on in her encounter with Raquel, but Raquel seems to take this in as new information considerably later on. One simple way to heighten the drama here would be to delete the earlier reference and to depict the woman as being of ambiguous origin, that the Raquel doesn’t recognize what she is immediately. Then when she reveals herself, it’s more of a shock to Raquel, and the reader feels it along with her.

On a larger scale, I would suggest ongoing rounds of what I call “Thinking Things Through.” The explosion on the ship is a good example. Characters are talking and acting through and after it, but the physical consequences of the explosion are very lightly sketched. Think in detail about what happens to an aircraft when part of it blows off. Make sure the characters are feeling it—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. The sheer terror and the deadly urgency of trying not to get sucked out into the void.

Even small details: How hard will it be to open the hatch to the cockpit with the cabin depressurized? How many passengers besides the Captain will have been ejected, and who may barely be able to hang on? Once the survivors are in the cockpit/bridge, what does it take to get the hatch secured? These details don’t need to be numerous—too many will slow down the action—but a handful, carefully chosen, will draw a clear and powerful picture of what has happened.

The emotional affect of the chapter in general is a quick sketch now, building the world and blocking out the characters. In the next phase, think about coloring in layers of feeling. Let the characters express how they feel. When they act, let those actions convey emotion, suggest urgency, add complications. Find different ways to express “frequent-flier” words and concepts: lookeyestareglance, for example. Watch for emotionally distant words and constructions: clauses strung together with and (which flatten tension and weaken the impact of each separate clause), passive-negatives (she did not get a chance to respond), passive verbs, reactions that step away from expressing feelings (such as considered).

Make sure characters’ responses are appropriate to the scene and the characters. When Raquel and Diego have their private conversation, does her grin and Diego’s smile fit the context? Is it too lighthearted for the situation? Is there a way to make it fit—a further layering of emotion, a detail that shows the reader why they might respond this way in this circumstance?

And finally, in constructing each scene, make sure the pacing fits the emotional intensity of the scene. Raquel is late for work in the opening scene, but her encounter with the old woman seems leisurely, without a strong sense of urgency. Paring down the exposition will help, but also think about shortening the scene itself. Keep in mind that Raquel is in a hurry, she doesn’t have time for this, she’s trying to get away but the old woman won’t let her go. Then when she sees the sheath, she’s caught in spite of herself. She has to find out where it came from. But she shouldn’t forget she’s late and will have to pay for it when she finally gets to work.

It’s all about keeping it brief, keeping the focus, and choosing the right words—while also being constantly aware of the the full ramifications of each action and reaction. Thinking it through, and saying it in just the right way.

Best of luck with the novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Horror

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

Scared of Girls by Liz Tuckwell

I’m drawn in by the unusual situation revealed in the opening scene, with the six teen girls sitting on Martin’s garden wall.  Martin’s fear of young girls is also interesting.  These two elements set up compelling questions–What do the girls want?  What is the cause of Martin’s fear?–that drive me to keep reading until the end, when the answers are revealed.  That works very nicely.

Some other elements of the story could be strengthened.

The story lacks a strong causal chain.  A causal chain establishes the connections between events–one thing causes the next, which causes the next, and so on.  A causal chain is important because it answers the “why” questions that give a story meaning.  It also gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own rather than being manipulated by the author, which is critical if readers are to “believe” the story.  And it makes readers more involved in a story, because if one thing is causing the next, readers can try to guess what will happen and feel suspense or excitement over that.

“Scared of Girls” has few causal connections, which makes it hard for us to feel much meaning or impact.  The initial situation doesn’t seem connected to previous causal events.  I don’t know why the girls started sitting on his wall.  I don’t know why teen girls frighten Martin.  Once the story starts moving forward, each scene doesn’t have an effect on the next scene.  The first scene only establishes the status quo and doesn’t have any effect on later scenes.  The second scene is a dream, and a recurring one at that, so it has no impact on future scenes (this is the reason it’s usually not a good idea to have dreams in stories; they seldom have an effect on the rest of the story and are usually a vehicle for revealing information or foreshadowing events, which is the case here).  The third scene involves Martin talking to his neighbors about the girls.  This conversation influences Martin to call the police, which is a causal connection, though it seems strange that Martin never considered this himself.  Martin’s call to the police, though, has no effect on the rest of the story.  It’s a dead end.  The next scene shows the girls pressing up against the window, something they’ve never done before.  What caused them to do this?  I don’t know.  So a major escalation in the situation has occurred with no cause.  This ought to cause Martin to call the police again, because the policeman implied they would take action if the girls trespassed.  But that never happens.  Instead, the girls pressing at the window causes Martin to open the door to tell them to go away.  So there is a causal connection between the girls pressing at the window and Martin opening the door.  But then he closes the door and somehow the door opens and the girls enter.  I don’t know why the door opens.  If the girls have had the power to open it all along, why didn’t they do this when they first learned about Martin rather than spending days sitting on his wall?  This is another escalation without a cause.  Then Martin transforms into a unicorn.  Why does that happen now, when it seemingly has never happened before?  If it’s the nearness of the girls, then I think he was nearer to them when they were pressed against the window.  Are the girls making him transform?  Is he somehow now allowing his own true nature to emerge?  Whatever causes this could make the story more interesting and meaningful.  Right now, it’s just a blank.  Why do the girls kill Martin?  While the twist of Martin’s transformation is surprising, which is fun, I don’t feel much sympathy for Martin, since he never had a chance, or much horror over the girls.  I enjoy the ending as a surprising twist, but that’s about it.  I’d like more.  I’d like some significance or meaning to Martin’s death and to the girls’ nature.  Creating a stronger causal chain would help that happen.

I hope that didn’t seem too harsh.  I just wanted to explain it step by step.  This is a fairly common writing problem, and it can be easy to fix and add a lot of excitement to a story.  There are many possible solutions; here’s one possibility.  Let’s start by looking at a key issue.  Why is Martin afraid of teen girls?  I imagine he gets some feeling when he looks at them or thinks about them.  The story uses bird metaphors to convey Martin’s sense that these girls are a threat.  Those metaphors show me that he fears them.  But it doesn’t show me why he fears them or why he thinks he fears them.  For me, when you talk about him staying inside except during school hours, I immediately start to wonder if he’s a pedophile.  So perhaps Martin fears that he is a pedophile because teen girls give him this strange feeling in his body.  That would explain why he doesn’t want to go outside to talk to them.

Then we could look at the question of why the girls started sitting on his wall.  Perhaps a few days ago Martin was late getting home from somewhere, and when he passed by the school, it had already let out.  One girl might have followed him home and sat on the wall.  Then others may have joined over the intervening days.  Why was he late getting home from somewhere?  Perhaps he was at a restaurant meeting a computer date, part of his attempt to find an adult girlfriend who might “cure” him of his feelings about teen girls.  This would show him struggling to solve what he thinks is his problem.  Perhaps he felt no attraction to the date, the date left, and he sat in the restaurant, depressed, until he realized the late hour.

As the number of girls increases, he struggles to figure out how to get rid of them.  He considers calling the police but decides against that because of his mother’s advice (and because he fears the police will sense he’s a pedophile).  That could explain why he goes to his neighbors.  Right now, I don’t know the purpose of Martin’s visit to his neighbors.  He seems to have no clear goal.  If he has a goal to get them upset about the girls and get them to take action, then he might lie and say he saw them going into the neighbors’ garden, looking in their windows, etc., and he might try to get them to drive the girls off or call the police.  This could work even better if he snuck into their garden earlier and ripped up some flowers or broke a window so he could blame it on the girls.  The neighbors, though, have a video doorbell and check the records when Martin is there.  They discover Martin is guilty and call the police on Martin.  This is an example of how escalation can be connected to the causal chain.  In this scene, as Martin goes to the neighbors’ house, readers expect the outcome will be either a “yes” or “no.”  Either the neighbors will say “yes” and agree to help, or the neighbors will say “no.”  Right now, they say no, which means Martin is back where he started and this scene has changed nothing.  Instead, you usually want a “yes, but” or a “no, moreover.”  In a “yes, but,” the protagonist gets what he wants but there are strings attached or some other unexpected development that makes the situation worse.  For example, “yes, Martin, we’ll talk to the girls and tell them to leave, but you have to do that with us.”  Or, “no, Martin, we won’t talk to the girls; moreover, we’re going to turn you in to the police for vandalism.”  The situation escalates and there will be a strong causal connection between this scene and the next.

This type of solution would also strengthen a couple other areas of the story.  Right now, Martin doesn’t seem to be trying strongly enough to solve his problem.  And he doesn’t seem to have a chance of success, so there’s not a lot of suspense over who will triumph.  If he tried harder and had some bit of success along the way, readers would feel more uncertain about the outcome and would feel worse when Martin fails.

I won’t go through the rest of the causal chain, except for Martin’s transformation.  I think the story could have much more emotional impact if we knew the cause of that.  Continuing my example, Martin might panic when he comes face to face with one of the girls in his kitchen.  The feeling of attraction might become overwhelming.  He might think this is why his mother told him to keep to himself; she knew he was sick.  His life has been miserable trying to fight his nature.  He’s tried and tried to avoid the girls and been unable to.  If his fate is to be a pedophile, then maybe he just needs to accept that he’s a horrible person and hope someone stops him soon.  So he decides to give in to it.  In this example, then, Martin causes the transformation, and it’s the culmination of (the effect of) all his failed attempts to get rid of the girls.

If we’ve seen Martin trying everything possible to avoid this situation, we might feel some compassion for him here, even as we’re upset at his decision.  And then, to Martin’s and our surprise, giving in to this attraction doesn’t mean approaching the girl for sex; it means turning into a unicorn.  Once Martin gets past the shock, he could feel huge relief that he’s not a pedophile.  That he has a pure love for these girls and doesn’t have to be afraid of himself anymore and doesn’t have to be alone.  Then they can kill him.

I hope this shows how to strengthen the causal chain, incorporate escalation into the causal chain, make the protagonist try harder to achieve his goals, and have a chance of success.  When you do those things, readers will believe more in the story, will be more involved in events, and will experience more emotion and draw more meaning from your story.

I really enjoyed the unusual situation and the unusual outcome.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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



Editor’s Choice Award November 2019, Short Story

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

Airbody by Sameem Siddiqui

“Airbody” caught my eye this month with its narrative voice—warm, cynical, self-reflective, and sweet—its careful attention to the impact, good and bad, of its science-fictional element on everyday lives, and the simple, humane lines of the story it’s telling. I love stories that take a less-worn approach to who would use science fiction technologies, why, and how, and take questions of a technology’s implications further. I do think, though, there’s room here to tighten, polish, and focus—it is an early draft! So this month, I’d like to discuss how to figure out what advances the narrative and what unfocuses or slows it in the kinds of stories that are about the power of smaller moments.

This story is deeply rooted in recognizing humanity, and it starts early and deploys that growth carefully. The line of travel from the first paragraph’s archetype-driven “Amazing how all Desi aunties are basically the same”—and a list of personalities that are mostly about really about the children, really about Arsalan—to a complex, whole person saying, “When you could live foolishly thinking you’d turn out to be something other than what you became in the end” is well laid out, and bolstered by subthemes and small details: the whole question of food and authenticity and memory, what the hints Arsalan drops about his habitual self-neglect, his childhood, and the roots of his habit of putting everyone else first say about care, caring for oneself, and being cared for.

There are deep waters being explored in “Airbody”, and what’s exciting is how well they all fit together—and fit the choice of science fictional element. The journey of “Airbody”—which is really thematically appropriate for a story about borrowing and commodifying bodies—is a journey from seeing people as things, people as how they’re useful to someone else into seeing people-as-people: unique, complicated, important. What Arsalan needed from others, and needs now; what Meena needed, and what Haniya needs.

The science-fictional metaphor being rolled out here absolutely fits, and “Airbody” is smart to not clutter that arc with digressions about the technology itself. It’s leaving room for the most powerful element of the story to shine, and that’s a real strength even though this is an early draft.

The voice is engaging from the first sentence, but it’s tangible how it softens near the end, as Arsalan recognizes his hunger and Meena’s as something the same, and the Urdu dialogue’s nested in such a way that what explanation is there feels organic, and a good deal of it is clear from context. Overall, this is deeply affecting, and has the potential to sharpen into a really powerful story.

The suggestions I have are mostly about pacing and focus: finding the places where the piece lags a little, or information doesn’t yet connect, and working out those rougher spots. This is something that might be a little more difficult in a story that isn’t aggressively events-driven; for those, the question “does this move the plot forward?” can get us most of the way there, but in a story that’s grounded in thematic questions, intimacy, character moments, and atmosphere, it can be trickier to step back and evaluate which of those moments are serving the overall piece better than others.

The method I would try would be to think about whether a line or moment works well by finding the centre of the story—in this case, I think, food, memory, the difference between using someone for something and loving them, sacrifice, and care—and seeing how strongly or weakly that line or event relates in any way back to the centre. Think of this as revising by Venn diagram! The stronger the tie, the more that line or scene is rounding out the whole of the story; the weaker the tie, the more it might need to be bolstered or trimmed. This is a bit like topiary, or trimming trees: the feeling of readerly focus in a short story isn’t too different from looking at a tree or shrub that’s kept in a tidy, cohesive shape—versus one that still has bits sticking out.

So specifically, I’d suggest attention on tightening up the middle of the piece. Meena and Arsalan’s banter and the whole cooking process note the passage of time and process, but they aren’t always feeding that complex nest of thematic questions, and where they aren’t touching at least one, the story feels a bit like it’s briefly spinning its wheels.

Likewise, the memories of Hafza and Karla aren’t tied as solidly as they could be into the question of Arsalan’s mother, of intimacy and what he’s after; all of them aren’t reflecting Meena and Haniya’s relationship all the way just yet. I can tell that parallel is important, but it’s not fully on the page for me yet, so the conclusion I’m supposed to draw—about what happened, or how I should feel as a reader—isn’t yet in focus for me.

I’m pretty sure once those things are snapped together, or brought out more, “Airbody” will be a really sweet, powerful piece—and I’m looking forward to seeing it find a good home.

Best of luck!

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