Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, Fantasy

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

When Dragons Wake, Chapter 37 by Cynthia Cloughly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, Science Fiction

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

Time Is The Fire, Chapter One V3 by Dylan McFadyen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, Horror

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

One Last Ride by Bill Mc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, Short Story

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

Bird’s Eye by RM Grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best luck!

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


Editor’s Choice Award January 2018, Science Fiction

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

Keeper of the Wings Ch 14 & 15 by Boz Flamagin

Part of my brief for these Editor’s Choices is to find a way to relate the piece I’ve selected to the more general audience. I usually try to balance specific comments with general observations. I also try to select early or opening chapters because there’s less background for me to try to fill in as I read, and in general I’ve found that an author’s habits are consistent throughout a ms.

This time I’ve chosen a later chapter of a very dense, chewy, science-fiction-y work, with a high percentage of unique vocabulary and a complex plot. The world intrigued me, and I was curious. I wanted to see how this author would tackle the challenge of portraying nonhuman characters in a completely alien setting.

It’s a big challenge. The characters have to be alien enough to be convincing, but not so much that they’re incomprehensible. There’s also the delicate balance between conveying alien concepts in alien words, and translating them into terms that humans can understand.

Coming in in midstream as I did, I had to do my best to pick up meaning from context. I couldn’t ask for definitions or explanations because the author had probably presented these in earlier chapters. By this point the reader will have acclimated to the vocabulary and be able to read without stopping to ask what a word or concept means.

I got the gist of it, and was able to follow the action and get a sense of who the characters were. One way the author made this possible was through the quick synopsis at the beginning—that’s a wise choice. And that led me to reflect on the art of the synopsis.

One of the hardest parts of the novel-writing business for many writers is that very thing. Pro submissions, whether to agents or editors, require a synopsis. There’s no getting around it. The person who’s reviewing the submission can judge the essentials of the writer’s craft from the sample chapters, but the synopsis tells her a great deal about the author’s grasp of the story.

A synopsis is more than a list of chapters or “this happens, then this and this.” It, as much as the query or the sample, is an indicator of the writer’s ability to keep the whole project in her head. It tells the reader what the writer thinks is important, and what she’s trying to do with the elements of her story.

To add to the fun and the challenge, agents and editors may request that this essential exercise be no more than a page long. Shorter if possible. While conveying all the essential elements of the work.

It’s like Cutthroat Kitchen for writers. “Here are all ingredients of your signature dish that takes days to make. Give it to us in six and a half minutes in an Easybake Oven with one hand tied behind your back.”

That’s what the synopsis at the start of this chapter has to do. It tells us what happened before, and what we need to know in order to understand what’s happening here. In a formal synopsis we’d get the rest of it as well, with enough of a tease of the ending that the publishing pro at whom it’s directed will know what kind of book it is and how it aims to achieve this. (Agents and editors prefer spoilers. They want to know exactly what they’re getting.)

The synopsis here needs clarity. The author has probably been so deep in the story for so long that it’s difficult to separate what’s evident in the text and what’s remained behind in the author’s head or in the previous iterations of the draft.

Outside of the actual characters mentioned in the chapters we’re reading—or for a submission packet, usually the first three chapters—there is no need to provide names. A plethora of alien names and terms can cause the reader to lose track of the story. A quick description will suffice: the aliens who are mentoring the planet, the various allies and adversaries and what they do, the physical and psychological processes that help move the plot.

With alien words, in short, a little goes a long way. Better a translation than a direct rendition. We don’t need to know the exact details of most plot elements—Sedeyre’s torture, for example; just that the torture happens. That’s the key, the thing that moves the story forward. The same applies to words and concepts. If the reader needs to know a term such as frenzaliz, she’ll pick it up in the sample, when it’s described and concisely explained.

The job of the synopsis is to convey the overall concept in clear, unambiguous terms. Basically we need to know the names of the main characters, the name of the planet, and maybe an alien term or two—though concise translations may be more effective. The goal is to present the general lines of the story in terms that are comprehensible to the first-time reader.

The clearer and less ambiguous the synopsis is, the more easily that reader can get a sense of what the novel is about. Then, in the sample, she can see how the author has opted to tell the story, and measure that against the larger picture of the synopsis.

It’s good practice to try this with the summary at the beginning of these chapters. The questions to ask are:

How can I convey my main ideas in clear, comprehensible terms?

Which alien words do I absolutely need to supply, and which ones can I present in translation?

Do I need to name every character, or can I just name those who appear in the chapters and briefly describe the rest?

For further challenge points, it might be useful to think about how to organize the synopsis so that it’s as clear as it can be. Would it be effective to start with the quick description of the situation the planet is in, with its galactic application and its mentors, then move to the events of the story proper? Would an equally quick description of the main characters be helpful before embarking on the plot summary?

In the summary as written, I’m a bit unclear as to whether the bullet points refer strictly to earlier chapters, or whether they’re meant to provide an overview of the whole. These are prior events, yes? And now we’re moving on to that the protagonist does next. Then of course, if this were a full synopsis, I would expect a complete, but very concise, summary of the plot as a whole. What the main characters want, how they work to get it, what reversals they undergo, and how they come out in the end. With as few names and alien words as possible, just enough to flavor the mix.

Writing synopses is a useful skill even beyond the requirements of the submission process. I find that when I put together a formal synopsis I can see gaps in the plot, catch inconsistencies, and get a clearer sense of what needs to be emphasized and what I can tone down or even cut out. It’s a good aid for revision, and great for concentrating the mind.

To sum up, and to get back to what’s really essential, namely this section of synopsis and the sample that follows: I’m intrigued, even with the profusion (and confusion) of alien names and concepts. It has some interesting ideas, and the worldbuilding is intricate and detailed. There are good bones here; lots of potential as it goes through the revision process.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review January 2018, Short Story

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

Floral Aberration by Marion Engelkehttp

“Floral Aberration” caught my eye this month with its engaging pace, immersive worldbuilding, and a core mystery that made me want to read on to find out what this one odd detail was all about. However, its somewhat abrupt reveal, and the flurry of information that includes, meant that despite the excellent grounding in the first half of the piece, I left it feeling somewhat lost. So this month, I’d like to talk about the role consistency of characterization plays in the other elements of craft: notably, pacing and worldbuilding.

“Floral Aberration” establishes a strong rhythm to the prose early, and a world grounded in not just visuals but smells, textures, materials, temperature, and motion. The setting in “Floral Aberration” is established quickly, in a few strong strokes: I especially liked including Antonia’s physical reaction to the environment—her aching shoulders and running nose—as part of the initial scene-setting work. It’s a little too infrequent that I see characters reacting to their environments in reasonable physical ways, and Antonia’s sniffles and foggy glasses imbue both her and the piece with a concrete, grounded physicality.

It also sets a solid context for the meaningfulness of Antonia’s headache when she sees the wallpaper. There’s a lesson in this regarding how we couch our plot cues and clues: had Antonia’s headaches been her only physical reaction to the space, the clue would have stood out in an over-obvious way, and felt hackneyed. Given the physicality of her environment, it’s one more thing—and comes across much more subtly than it could.

“Floral Aberration” moves swiftly and interestingly until the question of the wallpaper comes into focus, and then the methods of information delivery to the readers and Antonia both—and the plot logic—start to falter. Antonia’s realization about the wallpaper—and the way Vidur just kind of gives over the truth once she’s heard it in his conversation with Utz—feel abrupt, as does Vidur’s explanation of the Travelers and Antonia’s choice to flee. There’s a question of proportionate weight in the gravity of the information Antonia learns versus how she learns it: magic portal-creating wallpaper being found out because of an overheard—and public!—conversation? Secret classes of portal-creating navigators informed on by infodump?

There’s a perception in story and in life—right or wrong—that the value of a revelation is directly linked to how much we have to work for it, and there’s an inherent issue, in “Floral Aberration”, where Antonia never really works for any of the information she receives. The only thing she makes effort toward, the test, she fails, and everything else is handed to her in ways that sometimes feel overly plot-convenient. I’d suggest considering ways for Antonia to get her information that are both less abrupt and a little more organic, and fit more tidily with her character goals—which leads into the question of characterization.

While my issues with the end of “Floral Aberration” are a matter of pacing—the setup for this revelation is given much more spotlighting, and much more page weight than the revelation itself—it’s also a question, I think, of consistency in Antonia’s character.

There are solid reasons given for Antonia wanting to escape her childhood home: she doesn’t like farm work, which seems later like a cover for getting away from her family and their expectations on her sexual identity. She does, however, want to drive trains, and where her choice at the end of the piece doesn’t fit, for me, is with her reaction to losing that particular dream. When Antonia’s chance to drive trains is taken away, she doesn’t push forward into something new, or related: she accepts a job at Vidur’s café, doing work she’s uninterested in and living in a space that actively upsets her. This is a person who has already worked hard to leave home and build a new life for herself, and has described this as her dream. When that resignation is shown, it’s indicative that a lot of her drive to escape has broken—but then it suddenly reasserts itself after Vidur’s offer, yet not in the way that takes her toward her dream. She is being offered the chance to work on trains at a yet higher level: why not take it? If her actual goal wasn’t trains, but escape, why did she ever stay at Vidur’s café?

It’s this inconsistency in her characterization: the switch-flipping of what she actually wanted, and her failure to consistently react from internal motives—that truly does damage to the end of “Floral Aberration” for me. I’d suggest that the first move, in a new draft, would be to ascertain clearly what Antonia wants and why she wants it, and have her actions and reactions stem entirely from those internal motives rather than the needs of the plot.

There are other small issues, but mostly nitpicks: Why would Vidur and Antonia appearing in a secure facility, during a sensitive operation, be cause for nothing more than annoyance? Surely someone in security would get involved. Why recruit for something so important in a way that’s so roundabout and sinister-looking in the first place, when all the other jobs in this organization are so rigorously standardized and streamlined that you can only take the test once?

It speaks to my faith in the narrative that I’m picking at these questions, and I think that once “Floral Aberration” is using a consistent set of desires and motives to propel its narrative, a lot of those nitpicks will matter less to me, or clear themselves up.

Best of luck with a new draft!

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

Editor’s Choice Review January 2018, Fantasy

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

The Citadel, CH1PT1 by Saidhbh Duncan

This is a good beginning. It establishes the setting, sketches enough of the world that the reader gets a sense of where she is, and introduces the two narrators. Their voices are distinct and they present two different views of the same situation. The result is a rounded picture of the central figure, Lutran, and a set of questions and ambiguities that kept this reader reading.

As I said, a good start. The imagery is vivid, though sometimes a bit distracting—the stuttering blood, for example—and the writing overall is strong.

Here’s what I get from a cold read without background:

We’re in what looks like an alternate France, perhaps preindustrial but data so far is lacking; someone might pull out a gun later, or we may see a higher-tech facet of the world. Magic works, and something called the Citadel has some sort of power over it. I am wondering as I read, how this relates to or is inspired by the Citadel from Game of Thrones. Intentional? Coincidental?

Religion is powerful force here. Poorly and hastily built street confessionals thrown up everywhere, staffed by “presters,” i.e. priest figures, indicate some sort of upsurge in religious power or religiosity. Or is this a form of governmental control? Spying? I want to read on, to see if my questions are answered.

Meanwhile it appears that people with evident high competence and skill levels, and presumed education, believe that priests speak directly to God, and interpret God’s will or intentions. What I get from that is that in the belief system of this world, God speaks through sanctioned intermediaries, not directly to layfolk.

Which is very Roman Catholic, and subtle and impressive in terms of below-the-surface worldbuilding. There’s another layer, too, in that the prester in his confessional is not actually in direct contact with the Deity; he’s no more or less aware of divine will or intentions than anyone else. And like anyone else, if he wants God to act, he has to pray, and then wait for evidence that the prayer has been heard. This may point to a deep conflict within the world of the novel, and perhaps the novel itself.

It’s a bleak world, with terrible weather and harsh penalties for infractions. There appear to be no women in the street, and none among the principal characters—which of course may change in later chapters. I would hope so, as a reader, since I like to see myself represented in the works I read. And as a Western medievalist I can confirm that the female half of the species was distinctly in evidence in every city and town.

The author’s note asks about Piers’ dialect. I’ve noticed a recent fashion for writing in nonstandard English, after a long period of writers avoiding it, and when it works, it really works. But it’s a challenge to pull off.

Here, as I came in cold, my first impression was that I was reading a Weird West novel, because this particular variety of dialect points that direction. “It does” is kind of Cockney, but “ain’t” and “you reckon” and many of the subsequent stylistic choices have an American feel. There are slippages, too, into a more sophisticated or more widely traveled imagery: the cobblestones are wading, like an hundred islands in a dirty sea, for example. (And is the “an” intentional, indicating a more archaic pronunciation of “hundred”?)

I’m not seeing France in Piers’ diction, despite the rest of the indicators, the slant of the names and places, the pervasiveness and general direction of the religion. He confuses me with his shifts and verbal signals; I don’t know where to place him or how to hear him. Even his name has resonances that aren’t quite clear. Is he Old French Piers, or Middle English Piers? He’s probably not American West despite the way he talks, and the setting feels as if it’s meant to be more European than North American.

I have ingrained “Do Not Dialect” conditioning from my writer-childhood, so that’s a set of assumptions I have to factor in. I would, as a reader, like to something that clarifies why an English or American lower-class-type person with a medieval nickname is traveling around alternate France.

I don’t think the dialect should disappear altogether, because the distinction between the two voices is one of the things that makes the opening work. We get a sense of who the narrators are through their words as well as their names, occupations, and actions. But I think Piers can speak more neutrally and still do the job he’s meant to do.

There’s a multifold challenge here, if I am reading it right and Piers is telling his half of the story in some form of French. Since he’s written in English, the English has to work as English but also convey the not-English-ness of the character—without slipping into stereotype or caricature. If he’s not French, then there’s the question of where all the French names come from and why they remained French when the dialect of the countryside shifted to English.

The simplest fix I might suggest is to tone down the dialect: neutral narration, with a few carefully chosen words and constructions that convey the non-English-neutrality of Piers’ viewpoint. Vocabulary, choice of words, the order in which those words are written, can do a lot with a little. So can keeping the dialect to a minimum in narration but letting it do its thing in dialogue.

In the end, the best rule I can point to is Whatever Works. For me, this chapter works well, questions of dialect aside; I would definitely want to read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2018, Horror

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

The Last Keytarist by Scott Beckman

Horror critic Douglas E. Winter wrote, “There is thus no effective horror without a context of normality. The best horror fiction effectively counterfeits reality. . . . Eschew exotic locales and the lifestyles of the rich and famous.” “The Last Keytarist” is an excellent example of the power generated by setting a horror story in a context of normality. Protagonist Dave works in a pet store in a mall, a setting we’re all very familiar with. This allows us to easily visualize the strange events and feel like we’re there. It also makes the strange events more believable, because they occur in this familiar setting, and it allows us to focus our attention on the strangeness, since we can effortlessly fill in the pet store details.

Fantasy authors Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman advise writers to stay within their “strangeness budget,” cautioning them from making a story too strange to handle. “The Last Keytarist” has quite a bit of strangeness, but I never felt overwhelmed by it. Instead, I was excited by it, because the story is set so solidly in a non-strange location with a non-strange protagonist. Limiting the strangeness to particular elements allows the author to escalate that strangeness in a very exciting way–from talking animals to invading aliens to a cat who’s queen of the universe and a musical instrument that carries the power to stop the aliens–without ever exceeding its strangeness budget.

I really enjoyed the first half of this story. I think the second half could be improved in several ways.

The point of view, which starts out omniscient and then moves into Dave’s head for most of the story, never quite gets close enough to Dave. An unintentionally distant POV is a common problem. Small word choices can often create distance. For example, calling the character “Dave” rather than “he” creates distance. “Dave” is used quite a lot. Dave’s actions are often rushed over, so we don’t really feel we’re in his body going through these actions. For example, “Dave opens all the cages and the animals pour free, snarling and snapping at the alien limbs.” While the story can’t show Dave opening each cage–that would be boring and make this a very long story–it could show us Dave opening the first cage, and perhaps the second, and then recapitulate (summarize) the rest. Since Dave hates animals, it would be interesting to see his reaction to the animals climbing over him to get to the aliens. This would deepen his character and prepare us for his character arc, which has him loving the animals at the end. One of the cages might contain the cat who’s queen of the universe, so we could see an interaction between them. The sentence quoted is also confusing because “snarling and snapping” seems to relate to how the animals treat Dave, and it’s not until we get to the last two words of the sentence that we realize the animals have already run past Dave.

Another example of the distant POV occurs when Dave plays his keytar to drive the aliens away, and the aliens scream: “The screams get into Dave’s head, threatening to burst his brains from his skull, but he winces through the pain and plays on.” This doesn’t feel like it’s conveying what Dave is really going through. It feels like a distant, rushed description. The distance in the POV prevents me from experiencing the story with the immediacy and emotion that would maximize its impact.

This ties to a related issue, which is that Dave doesn’t react to some key moments that seem like they’d stimulate a reaction from him. For example, the frog tells him he’s the greatest living keytarist in all realms of reality. That would be like telling one of us we’re the greatest living writer. I would have a reaction to that. Then Dave touches his keytar and his body sends a spark of electricity through the keytar, which it’s never done before. Yet he doesn’t react. When the hamster tells him to play the song of victory, Dave has no reaction, so I don’t know if he knows the song of victory or not. Is he concerned because he doesn’t know the song? I never know whether he actually plays the song of victory. As far as I know, Dave is just playing a single chord, yet he never worries about whether it will work or not. This lack of reaction at key moments prevents Dave from feeling like a real person and allowing me to connect to him in a strong way.

The final area I’d like to discuss is the plot. The denouement, with the “it was all a dream” followed by “oh no it wasn’t” was disappointing for me. This is a familiar ending for many horror/fantasy stories. Just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it can’t work, but to work, it needs to be appropriate to the story and done in a way that feels fresh and true. For me, this ending doesn’t seem to fit the story. The story, with its escalation of strangeness in the middle, seems like it has moved beyond reality, and to return to reality seems like moving backwards, not an exciting twist. If I’m supposed to believe that it was all an hallucination, that leaves me very sad and unsatisfied. If I’m supposed to believe that it might have been real, that is inconsistent with the leveled skyscrapers, which seem suddenly intact again. The most important element is the tone. I feel I’ve been playing a very fun game reading this story, and then the fun is killed when Dave wakes up in the hospital. A possible alternative might be to have Dave wake up surrounded by the animals, who explain that they’ve erased the memory of the invasion from humanity and made them think massive earthquakes caused all the destruction, and they’re getting requests from all across the universe for him to play and save their planet, so he can work at the pet store by day and play at night. Something like that would bring the spirit of fun to a nice conclusion.

The story has a lot of strengths. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Review December 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.


Word for word and scene for scene, this is a strong opening, with vivid and well-realized characters and a story that kept me reading all the way to the killer line at the end. It’s good, and I would unquestionably read on. I want to know more.

What caught my eye as I scanned submissions for the Editor’s Choice was the author’s comment about genre and the rules thereof. Urban Fantasy seems to be a catch-all for fantasy set in the present day, with magic of course, and an urban setting. This piece, says the author, breaks the rules.

First one being, it would seem, that the setting is rural—mostly, a cornfield, and a country road. There’s magic hinted at, between the color of Oliver’s eyes and the fact that he can apparently confer immortality on others. There’s a mystery to be solved, and danger to face, as crusty old Haru agrees—reluctantly—to become Oliver’s protector.

This all works just fine, in fact more than fine. It’s internally consistent, the voice is clear and distinctive, the pacing is brisk and the characters believable. But it doesn’t read to me as Urban Fantasy.

It is contemporary, more or less. There’s a “Supernatural” vibe about it, in the setting, in the way the characters talk and think. Both things and people are well-worn; there’s no shiny newness to dazzle the eye.

This isn’t, so far, about supernatural creatures walking the streets of present-day cities (and there’s the whole debate about “urban” being more germane than “contemporary”; any city in any period on any world might qualify). It harks back to an older subgenre, halfway between Magical Realism and William Faulkner. There’s even a hint of good old-fashioned country-boy science fiction in the mode of Theodore Sturgeon and Clifford Simak.

It’s not breaking the rules of these subgenres. It fits them quite well. And that I think might be worth considering in pitching to an agent.

Genre is a tricky thing. As soon as we label a work, we set up expectations in the reader. She comes to the work for specific reasons, looking for specific things. If she doesn’t get them, she may feel betrayed. This isn’t the story she’s looking for.

I can understand the desire to label a present-day story with magic Urban Fantasy. It’s big right now. Lots of bestsellers.

But a story like this, which follows a different set of rules, might be more appealing to an agent if it’s labeled something like “Supernatural and Neil Gaiman got together and had a baby,” rather than “UF but not really.” There’s a lot to love here, if the reader isn’t trying to fit this delightfully rhomboidal story into a neat round hole.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review December 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.

LO, I TEACH YOU THE UNDERMAN! by Patrick Gardner

“Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” caught my attention this month with its spare narrative style and immediate slow tension, and kept it by taking an intriguing dip into a pretty frequently-referenced text. However, as with any story working on two levels, I’d like to spend some time on whether each one works—and the seams between them. So this month, I’d like to talk about referencing, how we read referencing works, and what it means to effectively incorporate well-used texts into original fiction.

There are, at base, two ways we reference other texts in our fiction: references meant to be recognized, and references just meant to be felt by readers without being explicit about it—what we’d normally call an influence or inspiration. They produce some very different reading experiences: When a reference is meant to be recognized—think a fairytale retelling—readers aren’t just reading the original story, but constantly and reflexively comparing the story they’re reading to the reference text to see how it matches, and where it departs. The work’s judged not just on how it works as a story, but how it compares to the original story—and what’s being said by the author by how the stories do and don’t match. Those differences are spaces for authors to make comment on the original story and its assumptions, and readers expect those comments there, as well as expecting a certain resonance.

“Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” references, quite explicitly, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: the twist on one of its most famous lines is right in the title, and it follows up with another solid clue in Rajiv’s poetic opening line. Put together, after one paragraph I know to go in reading in that comparative way, looking for where the divergences tell me part of the story—with the substitution of “underman” for “superman” being a solid clue that this is going to give me important information about the piece.

As a story that’s working on reference, “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” delivers. It’s taking the idea in the very next line—”Man is something that shall be overcome”—and applying it, quite literally, to the question of AI and self-driving cars, Rajiv’s downward trajectory is a solid opposite mirror to the trajectory of the original, and the ending works with Zarathustra‘s concept of amor fati (the recurring “what else could he do?”). There’s a resonance created by that updating of familiar tropes that’s satisfying, if you’ve read the original. The question is: How does “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” work as a piece of original fiction?

For a reader who hasn’t read Zarathustra, or isn’t dipping into those layers, “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” might feel somewhat to-the-numbers. There’s a clear and compelling conflict set up—Rajiv has no other source of support except Anaya, and the dead bodies endanger them both—and the prose is clear, readable, and engaging (I especially liked the comparison to a deep-sea diver, and the strong visuals when Rajiv tails Anaya). But absent the original-text references, issues crop up: Rajiv’s fatalism feels as if he’s ducking his own agency, and the fear he starts the story with—being hunted, arrested, shot, or deported (oddly, never sent to prison?)—doesn’t change, from beginning to end. He starts with a dead body, no money, and worried about the cops, and that is exactly where he ends.

The core conflict of “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” is clarified—we learn the why—but it never evolves or resolves. No, Rajiv doesn’t win, but he doesn’t even lose: The same situation continues to play out, and the same consequences are feared, potentially gathering on the horizon. That’s a very Nietzschean outcome, but absent that thematic resonance, it doesn’t make for effective fiction. The ending beat—the landing, the new piece of information—is that Anaya is the killer, and if that’s the only new piece of information, it feels like a twist ending, and not a solid resolution.

The question I’m left with is what’s different—what’s changed, what important event has occurred—between the beginning of the piece and the end? In short, what is the story?

That’s a serious question for a piece of fiction to elicit, and given the source material, it might be one that “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” just has to live with. But what I’d suggest, in further drafts, is looking at “Lo, I Teach You the Underman!” for balance between its two channels of information: the thematic, referential, Zarathustra-reading channel and the channel that’s taking this as an original, stand-alone story. It works as one; how might you make it work as the other, and then balance those two readings so neither of them dominate?

It’s a careful balancing trick to make a work compelling on both levels, but it’s possible by looking at both potential readings and going back to the elements of craft: narrative motion, conflict-and-resolution, the internal logic of both the character and the world. As just this story, about Rajiv and his car, what changes might make this satisfying, compelling, or produce a sense of forward motion and significance? Once those are established, how do they dovetail with the Zarathustra references?

I’m thinking this is going to be an iterative process, but modern fiction with a Nietzschean aesthetic is an ambitious goal, and I think it’s worth taking the time to work it out to its fullest potential.

Best of luck with the piece!

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