Editor’s Choice Award October 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 Unknown Ones, Chapter 1 by Peter Kelly

I love historical fantasy. Historical fantasy is my jam. Add Celts, and pointers toward Roman Britain—you’ve got me with some of my favorite things.

This chapter has a lot of potential. I can see a story taking shape. It hasn’t really gone anywhere yet, but it is moving. This may be a long book, as historical novels can turn out to be, but that’s fine, as long as the story stays in motion and the characters and their actions and reactions keep the reader turning the pages.

My main advice to a first-time writer would be to keep writing, and not worry about doing it “right.” Just get the story down and the characters blocked out. Let the words come in the way they want to come. Worry about revision after the draft is finished, when it will be time to go back and tidy up and sort out the various threads of the story.

That being said, since I’m here to offer a more general set of pointers as well as to address the chapter at hand, here are a few things I noticed as I read. I would say don’t worry about making the fixes now, and don’t let that worry get in the way of finishing the draft. Finishing is the most important thing. Just take what I say here and file it for the revision phase.

First, viewpoint. There’s no doubt about who is telling the story. We’re reminded in every sentence. We’re told Calgacus thinks, feels, suspects, knows, understands, ponders, and so on. I call these “viewpoint tags,” and while it can be helpful to sprinkle in a few to keep the reader apprised of the camera angle, a little (as with so much else in writing) goes a long way. Most of the tags don’t need to be there; the choice of words, the nature of the reactions, the feelings and opinions and biases that come through the narrative, will tell the reader all she needs to know about who Calgacus is and how he feels about what he’s seeing.

Another layer of viewpoint is a bigger one, and that’s whether this is the right character to tell this part of the story. All the important things that happen here are happening to someone else. Calgacus is pretty strictly an observer, and in that respect he’s less a protagonist than a plot device. He describes the ceremony and its participants, and delivers exposition about who the people are and what they’re doing and why.

This is particularly noticeable when he Explains Things to Bricriu, on the pretext that Bricriu is too much of a jock to have paid attention in history class. While the reader may need or want to know these things, having Calgacus explain them to his older brother shows just a little too much of the scaffolding underneath the structure of the story. We want to feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing it with the characters. We end up wondering if Bricriu really has paid this little attention to one of the key elements of his religion, and if he has been that oblivious for so many years, whether he’d really bother to sit still when his brother starts godsplaining. Or would he just blow on past and leave Calgacus expounding to the air? And finally, would Bricriu really know that little about something that is so very important to his own future, let alone that of his tribe?

There’s also the question of why Calgacus isn’t the one who’s becoming a man this year. While I love the details and the exposition, as a reader I’m wondering when Calgacus will start protagging. Why is he the observer, and Bricriu the one who actually acts? If he has to be left out of the manhood ceremony for reasons that move the plot through to its eventual conclusion, what can he do here to show more of his active side? Is there something, some plot-piece, that he can be in charge of, that lets us see how he’ll be acting as he goes on?

Explaining and expositing don’t count. It should be something he does, some action he takes, or something he says that precipitates action—to which he then has to react.

Second, dialogue. The characters “quip” and joke around, and it seems they’re trying for some kid-level realism and comic relief in among the descriptions and the explanations. The problem with this in the draft is that the joking doesn’t move the story forward, and it clashes emotionally and stylistically with the ritual around it. I rather like Bricriu’s potty mouth, but the joshing and bickering slows down the narrative and keeps us from being able to really feel the power of what’s happening around it.

In revision, ask whether most of it really needs to be there. Some does help character, and we get a picture of an expanding cast of major and minor players, which is good. But again, a little goes a long way.

Third, names and naming. I’m a little confused about this, because some names are standard Celtic, such as Bricriu, but then there’s the Romanized Calgacus of the Epidii, and then there’s Martyn, whose name comes from another tradition altogether. Names have power, and in historical fantasy, that can be literal. Names make the magic. If the names aren’t consistent, and there isn’t a clear reason for that inconsistency, they undermine the worldbuilding.

Now mind you, I can give you a perfectly solid historical reason to have a character named Tiffany in your Viking historical, but that reason has to be clear and up front. If I’m writing in the viewpoint of a tweenaged boy in Britain, unless that boy is Roman or part Roman, he’s not going to give himself a Roman name. (Is he part Roman? Ione has a Greek flavor.) He’ll call himself something Celtic, and he’ll call his tribe by its Celtic name. Likewise his brother Martyn—what would the Celtic form of that be?

I would work on the names as carefully as the rest of the details, many of which, as lovely as they are, somewhat front-load the narrative here; I’d cut them about about 75% and save them to be woven in later where they’ll be more directly relevant. The depth of the research is clear to see. Let the names show it, too.

Best of luck with this. It’s a very good start. I’ll be interested to see how it progresses.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Downbound by Victoria Gregg

Description can drown readers in unnecessary, distracting details, or it can immerse readers in the key details that build the story.  “Downbound” provides some vivid, significant details that help make its setting and premise come to life, that build atmosphere, and that convey emotion. The story really pulls me in with the first description of the interior of the old, abandoned caboose:  “The walls were paneled in rich, dark wood, shining glossy in the glow of flickering lamps that dangled from the ceiling.  Dark red couches of crushed velvet lined the sides of the caboose, on top of thick rugs that overlapped one another.”  What the girl sees is surprising and fascinating.  On another visit to the caboose, the girl sees men inside playing cards and talking, and one detail helps us to feel the supernatural nature of the situation:  “Their words were muddled like she was hearing them from underwater.”  The description keeps me involved all the way to the story’s end.  I also really enjoy the premise and the setting.

For me, the protagonist and the plot aren’t as strong as these other elements.  It’s hard for me to understand or relate to the protagonist, the girl.  The opening seems to be showing us two contradictory things about the girl.  First, she has absorbed many things about the caboose and the train it was once part of.  Second, she has never had a desire to look inside the caboose.  It’s hard to believe she would absorb and remember all of this information and notice all of these details without having any interest in the subject matter.  So the girl doesn’t quite seem like a real person to me.

Her sudden interest in the caboose doesn’t have a clear cause, either natural or supernatural; it seems caused by the author wanting her to be interested.  The same seems true when she wants to return two more times.  I don’t understand her motivation for returning.  She is frightened by what she sees in her first visit and frightened by the second visit.  It doesn’t make sense to me that she would want to return.  We know the girl is poor and neglected; if we saw her threadbare dress and her tangled, greasy hair and felt the girl longing for the thick furs, long evening dresses, and shiny curls of the women she sees in the caboose, then I would understand why she wants to return.

Or if she is afraid of what she sees, perhaps there’s another reason she returns.  For example, after her first visit, perhaps she discovers that she has lost something of value–something she made for her mother, or homework for school–and realizes she dropped it when she fled from the caboose.  So then she needs to return.  Or she realizes that an object she saw inside the caboose could be worth a lot of money and could solve her mother’s financial problems.  It’s important, for almost all stories, that the character actions and plot events follow a causal chain, where one thing causes the next, like a row of dominoes falling over.  Without a causal chain, the story can feel manipulated by the author.  And while all stories are manipulated by the author, readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.

Right now, I don’t feel a strong causal chain, so the girl’s actions and the plot in general feel manipulated.

If the story is trying to show that supernatural forces are compelling the girl to go to the caboose, those forces need to be conveyed more vividly.  For example, perhaps the girl sees some glittery object hanging in the window of the caboose that she’s never seen before.  She might want to make a necklace out of it, so she’d go to the caboose, and we’d understand she’s being lured by some supernatural force.

Another element that could strengthen the protagonist and plot is a goal.  In most stories, the protagonist needs to be struggling to achieve a goal, and the protagonist needs to have some power to achieve that goal.  If she doesn’t have a goal, then her actions seem dictated by other forces.  This, too, can make the story feel manipulated.  More than that, we seldom form a strong emotional bond with a protagonist who isn’t working toward a goal.  We relate much more strongly to a character struggling to achieve a goal, because we all have goals and struggle to achieve them.  If the protagonist has no power to achieve the goal (she doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but she needs to have some), then she’s a victim, and again seems manipulated, and we have difficulty caring and relating to her.  If the character has a goal and power to achieve it but there is no struggle, then the story has no suspense and we don’t feel strong emotion toward the character.

In the story, the girl has no goal except to keep returning to the caboose, which I don’t believe.  She has power to achieve her goal, which is good, but she has no struggle in achieving that goal.  It’s easy for her to go.  So the story has little suspense.  It seems she’ll keep going back until something bad happens to her, and indeed that’s the plot.

I think the plot could be pushed much further.  If her goal is something more difficult, and something that enriches her character, then we will believe it more, relate to her more, and feel more suspense.  The story seems to imply the mother has an abusive boyfriend or spouse.  If so, maybe the girl wants to get some object that seems valuable from the caboose and convince her mother to buy a car and leave town.  This would be a difficult goal for the girl to achieve, but one she would have some power to attempt.  This goal would also allow/require the girl to do more than look into the caboose.  She could gain the object and struggle to convince her mother to leave town.  The boyfriend could pose a threat to the girl and take the object away.  The girl could struggle to get it back, anger the boyfriend and cause him to beat the mother.  The girl might lie and tell the boyfriend that there are more valuable objects in the caboose to get him away from the mother.  The girl might take the boyfriend to the caboose . . .  and the story would reach its exciting climax.

This is just one possibility, but it’s one where the protagonist and plot are following a causal chain, the situation is changing more, the girl is struggling more toward her goal, and the stakes are rising.  Something like this, with the strong description, setting and premise currently in the story, could make this more suspenseful and more emotional.

I hope this is helpful.  I think the story has some strong elements to build on.  The description, setting, and premise really kept me involved.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Beyond The Ether by Penelope Lee

“Beyond the Ether” caught my eye this month—and it was a hard choice between strong pieces!—with the wonderfully communicated, ambivalent, permeating emotion it packs into only a thousand words. This is a piece with an impact, and one of the rare workshop stories where the core relationship is a friendship—one that’s messy, complex, and full of hurt. So this month, I’d like to talk about symbolism and implication, and how they generate emotion.

One of the strategies that makes “Beyond the Ether” work for me is that it’s, on the prose level, a fairly straightforward read. The narrative voice is clear and conversational, with a simple structure and clean prose, and no tangents for explaining worldbuilding to distract from the unfolding situation. The story is a clear and easy read. The power that drives it is generated in the story’s symbols, and how the information on the page can be put together by readers to draw conclusions about what’s happening off the page—which is one of the most viable strategies for making very short fiction work. Flash fiction might be overall considered an art of implication: with so little space to work with, each sentence has to imply at least as much as it says in order to get a whole story on the page.

And “Beyond the Ether” starts that work immediately. It’s clear throughout the story that the tree stands in for more than one aspect of the situation: the protagonist, her friend, her friendship, the idea of freedom, of what’s outside. It establishes a solid visual anchor for readers before sliding into the story of this broken friendship and how it fits into the pieces of an obviously broken world, and does so in a way that’s vivid, vibrant, deep, and tactile. The idea of a tree leaning through a fence, straining its leaves outward—described in not just colour but twisted alteration, shelter and shade—is strongly kinetic, as is “I’ve got so many dreams. You used to put them into little marbles and ground them down to sand.” They’re metaphors that go directly to the hands, and embody the protagonist’s situation in a way that dodges cliché and spotlights, for readers, what clues we’re supposed to look for about how the world of the story and the Center work.

The worldbuilding in “Beyond the Ether” is interestingly done, for a story told so straightforwardly: true to an oppressive environment, the protagonist never outright expresses an opinion on the awfulness of Center life. She talks around it, leaves little facts like breadcrumbs, and we fill in the blanks as readers, characterizing her situation through the comparisons she makes or what’s left unsaid. There’s a dystopian world of horrors outside the walls of this situation, but it’s only looked at sideways, treated as part of the regular fabric of the protagonist’s world, and the way the hints add up is compelling—and still vague enough to let readers’ imaginations run.

The same technique is at work in talking about the story’s core: a mutiny and a messy, broken friendship. “Beyond the Ether” never actually says outright why the relationship between the protagonist and her friend happened in the first place, why it went bad, why it’s over—which is a core piece of information for emotionally engaging with the story. But the story gives readers that information incredibly clearly in the subtext, in little pieces. The entire contrast between why the protagonist chose Jack and a heterosexual romantic relationship and following the rules, keeping her head down, and escaping that way over the intense intimacy with her former friend, mutiny, and flight is implied by the collision between:

“It keeps us safe but it also can kill us. You used to say that a lot.”


“But I was hungry for you to give me that special treatment, to call me over from across the rec room to the little circle of cadets you’d created.”


“Jack says ideas don’t mean much if they never come to fruition and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. He helped me pass my flight exam. So he and I could be co-pilots”—that Jack’s brand of affection helped her be more and bigger to keep them together, instead of the friend’s steps to keep the protagonist small to keep them together; a concrete friendship instead of the idea of one. That’s an incredibly complex, difficult, and real set of dynamics rendered in the space of three lines, capped off by “If you were less stupid, you’d get out of here with me.”

That’s ultimately what I loved about this piece: how it manages to tackle the difference between love that elevates and love that crushes, in so little space, without the feeling of density: just by dropping the right puzzle pieces and the right clues to hold in one’s hand.

The author’s notes asked about the ending, and whether it feels complete enough, and I’m uncertain it does. While there’s a sense of completion there, I’m not sure the ending as it’s currently written brings the emotional arc to a close, or opens it up for a new implied, off-the-page direction. I think some of that problem’s in the sentence level: By the time we reach “Forget me”, we’re textually far from the idea that it’s what she’s hoping for—just in terms of literal page-distance—and so the sentence reads closer to a stand-alone imperative. It muddies the tone a touch with a despair and self-destruction that hadn’t been in evidence before, and that might be a source for any confusion generated by the ending.

However, the other potential problem is that I’m not sure just the act of forgetting would bring this relationship to a close, or bring the protagonist in line with a new direction. The problem, to be quite literal, is still open-ended. It doesn’t feel like an ending to me, because it hasn’t ended.

If I have a suggestion for a more satisfying ending, it might be to approach that problem from the thematic level. “Beyond the Ether” isn’t a plot-driven piece: it’s a study of a relationship, and the study of a resolution—a decision already made, if made conflicted and in grief and maybe not with 100% resolution. What moves within it, the driving narrative force, is the protagonist’s progress from grief to something different; something more. I’d suggest that getting a stronger sense of where she is going emotionally and crafting an ending line that points to that goal would be a good starting point for finding the right closing lines for “Beyond the Ether”. Which door she is opening, or which door she’s closing—but on the level of the emotional decision, rather than her choice to go into space with Jack.

It’s a small but significant piece of work, and I think that’ll really bring “Beyond the Ether” into focus—and take it from affecting to outright powerful.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Eyes Of Glass, Chapter One by Scott Christian

This is a strikingly atmospheric chapter, full of rich and complex imagery. At the same time it moves along quickly. The pacing is rapid and the proliferation of plot-bunnies is, in a word, prolific. There’s a lot going on, and it goes fast–though it could go even faster, as I’ll explain below.

In this iteration I think it’s clear that the noir detective is the viewpoint and the Doctor doesn’t appear until after Jack has established his identity and his function in the story. While the funky formatting hits my eye with chunks of undifferentiated text, with a little effort I can see how the paragraphs seem to want to be structured. For the most part I can follow the narrative.

The main thing I might suggest for revision is a bit of a step back, and some assessing of priorities, starting with the way the paragraphs are structured. There’s so much going on, so many details, such a heaping on of actions and reactions, descriptions, characterizations, and general plot-chewiness, that sometimes it’s hard to navigate.

First I’d recommend shortening paragraphs, teasing out viewpoints and angles and general what-happens-here, and giving each its own space. That way, it’s easier to follow what’s going on, but the prose will keep its overall lushness.

Here for example, at the very beginning, we see this:

It was only a matter of time. The identity of the “old-fashioned detective” had been his most successful, but most desperate disguise yet. It was a symbol of justice he had carefully crafted to try and prove that the world wasn’t lost quite yet, that innocence could still be protected, that life didn’t have to end with regret, and that even Black Jack could become one of the “good guys.” That symbol’s name is Private Detective John Stack. Tonight, however, that symbol is dying, for night has fallen in the Leviathan and with it came a monster.

There’s so much packed into this space. We learn that he has basically an avatar, the detective. Apparently he calls himself Black Jack. But then he has another name. And he’s dying. Or his avatar is. And it’s night somewhere called the Leviathan, and there’s a monster, but Leviathan is a monster, so are they the same thing? Or are they different?

What happens here is that we get one piece of information, then another that may be vaguely contradictory but is probably identical to it, but we can’t be sure before we move on to the next pair of is it/isn’t it. Some of this is probably intentional, because the universe Jack is operating in has that kind of recursive ambiguity to it. But the prose isn’t quite in control of itself yet, and the piling on of details within a single paragraph has the effect of jumbling them together.

Breaking them up will help. So will polishing for a little more clarity.

One way to do this is to prune the imagery. For example:

The unlit towers of the Old Downtown rise like skyscraping gravestones into the winter sky above.

There’s a whole heap of metaphors here: towers, skyscraping, gravestones. They rise, they’re in the sky, the sky is above.

Pruning just a couple of words removes redundancy without losing the sense: The unlit towers of the Old Downtown rise like gravestones into the winter sky.

Same strong imagery, clearer meaning. A similar pruning pass through the whole chapter will bring out the essentials, keep the atmosphere, and make the rapid pacing even more effective.

Watch for repetitive words and phrases, too. For example the Doctor purrs repeatedly and sometimes confusingly. She is Cat, yes? Which explains why she does this. But the connection could be clearer. It’s like Black Jack/John Stack and Leviathan/monster: the connection isn’t quite solid, and the proliferation of words and images makes it hard to catch the meaning.

And finally, in action scenes, it’s best in general to to keep the focus on a small number of very specific things that happen. If the scene goes on too long, it starts to lose tension, and the more so if it’s written slow—with long sentences and subordinate clauses.

In a rush of movement the gambler lunges forward and buries his dagger inches deep into the wooden door before he realizes the intruder has swiftly dodged to one side. In the flash of silence before the chaos begins, Stack’s lips are suddenly curled into a sadistic grin. After hearing his name for the first time in nearly a decade, Black Jack smiles at the world once more.
Try reading this aloud and see how slowly it moves. It means to be fast, it means to be strong. It wants to hit hard and move on quickly.

Shorter sentences, stronger constructions, more active phrases, will make this happen. Less repetition, more focus. More punch and pow.

The gambler lunges forward and buries his dagger in the door, too late. The intruder has dodged aside.

(new action, new viewpoint, new paragraph) In the flash of silence before chaos begins, Stack’s lips curl in a sadistic grin. For the first time in nearly a decade, Black Jack smiles at the world.

In short, and in sum: Definitely you don’t want to lose your wonderful atmosphere, but tightening up the prose and clarifying its meaning will make it work even better.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

West Of California, Chapter 8 by Steve Brady

This is an intriguing chapter. With the help of the synopsis, it comes through pretty well for a cold read; there’s enough background information to get a sense of who the characters are and what the larger story is about.

The narrative voice is distinctive, with a wry sense of humor. As I read, I can actually hear a couple of my college friends talking in that same tone, telling a long, rambling tale in between hits of controlled substances. It very much has that vibe.

What I’d like to suggest in the next round of revisions is further work on the structure of the story. There is so much going on, so many things happening over so many years. Much of it we do need to know in order to understand what’s happening in the story-present, and there is a clear attempt to break up the passages of summary and synopsis with bits of dialogue and character interaction.

That’s a good start. As a reader I’d like more air in the story-room—by which I mean, slowing down for the dramatized scenes, giving them more space, with less synopsis in between. Do we need the blow-by-blow of Laura and Andy’s life and travels, or can we move faster from major event to major event? Can the dramatized scenes fold in more backstory as characters talk and interact, and dispense with at least some of the summaries?

One way to write backstory like this is to tell it in a series of flashbacks with characters acting and interacting. For example in the Tucson sequence, rather than summarizing what Laura did and with whom over those years, the story might be told in a handful of scenes. The seeds of those scenes are already there: Laura’s meeting with Brad in the midst of her empty life of smoking and painting, and how and when she introduces him to Andy; a vignette of Brad caring for Andy while Laura takes the leap into signing up for courses, in which we see how they all feel about it, and maybe we get to feel Laura’s sense of freedom with maybe a stab of guilt; the rave and the party (which might be combined for further narrative economy); the day Laura finds out Brad is leaving.

The last scene is partly written, but it needs more. More emotional complications. More resistance from Brad. More friction—because friction is how things move in this universe, including stories.

Transitions between scenes don’t need to be written out as such (“Two years went this way,” for example). It’s quite acceptable to jump from scene to scene with a bit that establishes where and when it stands in relation to the last one—Brad might say to Laura, “I’ve been spinning my wheels for two years. I’m bored. I want out. I’m going to New York.” And then Laura reacts, and maybe Andy does something in reaction to that. Maybe there’s an argument. When it’s over, Brad has been backed into a corner—and how does he feel about that? Trapped? Pissed? Resigned? A combination of all three? And then on to the next important event, which in this case would be a scene set in New York.

None of these scenes needs to be long or elaborate. The word count may not be a whole lot more than is already there in the summary. It’s the difference between passive voice and active, between a story summed up from a distance and one that’s happening right in front of the reader.

Exposition definitely has its place, and so does synopsis, but what brings a story to life is characters acting, moving, talking, living–sometimes in messy ways, with complicated feelings. Then the reader gets to experience that life with them.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Pat Benatar and The Black Eyed Gods Of The Earth by Pierce Skinner

In a story centered around characters in a very disturbing cult, the author risks alienating readers who may find it difficult to relate to such characters.  This story instead draws readers in by starting with a situation we can easily relate to, three children exploring the countryside and discovering signs of a stranger.  The desire of Isaac, the protagonist, to steal the stranger’s Walkman is also something most of us can understand.  The disturbing cult they are part of is only hinted at in the opening scene, creating curiosity.  Future scenes provide additional hints and glimpses of the activities of the cult, drawing us further into the story, building momentum, suspense, and a disturbing atmosphere.  That works well.

Another strength of the story is that the cult feels both believable and unique.  I’ve read many horror stories about cults, and few of the cults portrayed in those stories have felt believable.

For me, the protagonist and the plot are not as strong as these other elements.   After stealing the Walkman and giving it to a girl to impress her, Isaac is a fairly passive, reactive protagonist.  He lets his friend, Alex, take the blame for stealing the Walkman and be killed.  He listens to the spirits of his dead, childhood friends as they provide hints about what is to come.  (Isaac believes they are gods, but they don’t seem like gods to me.)  When his dead friends kill his boss, he runs, but this is reactive–an action taken in reaction to what others have done–rather than active–an action taken because the character forms a goal and is struggling to achieve it.  It’s not clear that Isaac has any goal.  I don’t think he believes he can escape or even postpone his fate.  While he takes guns, I don’t think he believes he can stop them with bullets.  This makes his running pretty empty; nothing seems at stake.  If he wanted to do something else before meeting his fate, so he was racing to do that, he would be more active with a stronger goal and something at stake.

This relates to a larger point, which is why we should care about Isaac.  Why should we care whether there’s a way for him to escape his fate, and why we should care what he chooses?  I don’t know what Isaac has done with his life in between living in the cult as a child and meeting his fate as an adult.  He seems to have just been marking time.  If that’s so, maybe he realizes he’s wasted the time he had when his dead friends show up, belatedly realizes what he should have done, and now wants to do that thing before his time is over.

For example, perhaps there’s one person from the cult who has survived.  Perhaps it’s the girl he liked, Sandra.  Isaac could have been seeking out the others over the years and discovering when and how they died.  This would make Isaac more active, not just the recipient of information from other characters.  Perhaps he’s discovered Sandra is in a psychiatric hospital or prison, but he’s been afraid to seek her out, both for her sake and his own, thinking perhaps one or both of them might be overlooked by the curse of the cult.  Perhaps, in gathering all this information, he’s formed a theory about when they will be killed.  This could bring a ticking clock into the story and add suspense.  Right now, the suspense builds until around the scene that ends “I don’t breathe till I’m back on the highway.”  Then it declines, because we know Isaac can be killed at any time, and that time is just up to the author, not up to anything Isaac does.  (Of course the author controls every aspect of the story, but the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding according to a change of cause and effect, and that the protagonist has the ability to influence the course of events.)  If Isaac thinks he knows when Sandra will be killed, and when he will be killed, then Isaac will have to race against that clock if he wants to accomplish anything before it’s too late.  As the time he has calculated for Sandra’s death approaches, he may feel the need to call her.  And she could reveal that strange things are happening.  Sure now that she’s about to die, Isaac decides he doesn’t want to hide anymore; he wants to try to save Sandra.  He might think that if he can delay her death so it doesn’t happen at the proper time, she might be spared.  If he dies in the process, that would be okay.  Or he might think he could sacrifice himself in place of her.  Or maybe he thinks she knows something that could save both of them.  Either way, Isaac has a goal, something is at stake, time is short, and suspense is high.   Maybe he can affect events or maybe he can’t, but at least he believes he might.

This struggle can also help set up a difficult decision for Isaac.  The story establishes that Isaac has a choice to make:  die or have the same existence as his dead friends.  Right now, Isaac decides to be with his friends because they are, after all, his friends.  But there’s nothing much at stake in this decision and the choice doesn’t seem difficult for Isaac.  That means it doesn’t carry much emotion or impact.

Instead, for example, Isaac might have decided long ago that he wants to die.  He doesn’t want any twilight life like his friends have.  He struggles to save Sandra, and we can see how much she means to him, how precious these few minutes they have together are to him.  But he fails, and she becomes another dead friend.  Now he faces a difficult decision.  Accept life after death and be with Sandra, or choose death and lose her again.  I think whatever he decides, it will have more impact.

To further clarify the stakes and the decision, I think we need a clearer sense of what this life after death is.  As I mentioned, his dead friends don’t seem like gods to me.  They seem very limited in their power, serving some more powerful being.  And it’s not clear what they do or how they live when they aren’t killing someone from the cult.  I’m not asking for a thorough description of their lives; I’m asking for a few key details that will make the stakes higher and Isaac’s choice more difficult.

One final point I want to mention is that quoting even one line of lyrics from a song requires permission from the rights holder (unlike quoting one line from a story a novel), which can cost hundreds of dollars.  My suggestion would be to make up a song rather than quoting from an existing one.

I thought you did a nice job of gradually revealing information and making me relate to characters that are part of this disturbing cult.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.


Nine Gold Dots by C.K. Attner

Post-apocalyptic futures are not new terrain—and neither are quests to find the one scientist who can save them—but what struck me about “Nine Gold Dots” this month is how it demonstrates what’s at the core of a post-apocalyptic story: nuanced character work and worldbuilding that argues for better—or different—societies. However, the ending to this absorbing alternate future feels abrupt—cut short and overly light compared to the rest of the piece. So this month, I’d like to discuss the structural components that go into an effective ending, and how they’re rooted in the rest of a story.

A lot of thought has obviously gone into “Nine Gold Dots” and its sense of place: it’s founded on dense, layered worldbuilding and practical thought about what would work day-to-day in this scenario (the induction plate! Solar panels! Bikes! All so textural, and deeply logical). I would like to especially note that I really appreciated seeing a future that’s Salish and Chinese—one overall reflective of the actual current demographics of British Columbia—and the effort that went into setting the space’s emotional tone. Even with what’s at stake, and Edmonton’s repressed panic, there’s a softness to this particular end of the world that I found deeply welcoming as a reader: a core value that everyone involved here cares about the well-being of others first and foremost. It’s the gentleness of Station Eleven, but rooted in a much less white, high-culture, reified world, and that fundamental decency made this story a deeply satisfying place to spend mental time.

The characterization work also carries the narrative well, which is important for a piece centred around only three characters. I especially love Phoenicia’s grumpy, down-to-earth, thoroughly knowledgable practicality. She reads like someone very loving who has nonetheless had to grow up much too fast, and I developed an immense soft spot for her almost instantly. Even Lindy’s abrupt consent to the download has an emotional logic: she misses her old world and her old life, and wants one last grasp at it.

Where “Nine Gold Dots” wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders for me, yet, was in terms of pacing. The author’s notes do say this is on the whole done, but I’d like to suggest a little more structural refinement to address that issue.

“Nine Gold Dots” starts as a slow and cautious read for a few reasons: the density of the worldbuilding presents somewhat of an obstacle for reader immersion in the first several hundred words—readers need to situate themselves in this world, and there’s a learning curve to do early—and that’s exacerbated by the amount of invented language/jargon in this piece. Readers are spending the early pages trying to understand how the invented terms fit, but at the same time, trying to build a setting foundation on which to situate those concepts.

As it stands in the current draft, the effect of having that crunch of worldbuilding details packed into the first pages—when we’re also meeting characters, establishing conflict, and doing all the other work a story needs to do to explain what it is and why it’s relevant—is that “Nine Gold Dots” feels overall top-heavy, with its ending somewhat summarily abrupt. It’s less, I think, that the ending on its own terms is abrupt; but when balanced against the sheer amount of page space the early scenes take up—because they have the worldbuilding!—the comparison creates the effect of an ending unfinished, or just not quite enough. This robs the ending of impact, and leaves the reading experience feeling somewhat incomplete, or less satisfying than it could be.

There are a few strategies I’d like to suggest to rebalance this effect, ones that can be used separately or together.

The first: Reconsidering the necessity of each piece of jargon, or worldbuilding detail. I don’t personally think pruning alone will rebalance “Nine Gold Dots” without losing some of the richness of the world—which is already great!—but a quick pruning pass might be a good starting point. Which of the worldbuilding details pay off in some way, later? Which don’t lead anywhere? Snipping out dead ends or jargon that isn’t pulling its weight leaves one with overall less information to accommodate in a different way.

The second: Diffusing the worldbuilding detail through more narrative space to take the weight and density off the early scenes, and support it more broadly through the story. As a guide for this kind of work, consider pacing—and the density of detail—in a way that’s cyclical, like breath. Every piece of new, unfamiliar information—for example, that Edmonton is researching a viroid but also wants to link with the Thinker on his Kingston-class ship’s orlop deck—takes a little attentional oxygen out of the reader. And for every little bit of cognitive breath we take out, we have to give some space to fill those readerly lungs. That can mean couching it in more context or clearer context; it can mean some space between new concepts; it can mean a little time in familiar concepts to help clear those metaphorical lungs. But either way, finding methods to put air in our work is a great tool to have in the box to keep readers immersed even in information-dense settings.

The third: Adding a little more page weight to the ending. Ultimately, if the denouement feels a bit abrupt or slight, a small underline on the ending—and what readers are to take from it as the resolution that should satisfy them—can help balance from the other end. I can think of one particular starting point for this: There’s a line not entirely clearly drawn between the idea that teaching Edmonton to interface with the Thinker might take months, and that Lindy has months—maximum—to live. When those two ideas are connected, “Nine Gold Dots” says something profound about what we do with the time left to us, and a little more underlining on that point—just a one-sentence callback—could help boost the impact of the ending.

Ultimately, stabilizing pacing and structure can take a little experimentation: testing, taking words out, putting them back in, and checking to see if the story overall wobbles now or not. But with a little more work on moving the spotlight from the world, in the beginning, to a smoother pace that’s spread out throughout the whole piece, “Nine Gold Dots” can really click, I think, into a moving and humane piece.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Three Faces Of Holly, Chapter 2 by Anne Wrightwell

There’s a lot of intriguing stuff going on in this submission. Lots of mystery, lots of details that alert the protagonist to the fact that she’s not in her original reality. She spends much of her time telling us what’s different, and letting us know how she feels about it.

It’s clear the author has thought carefully about the worldbuilding, and paid attention to the little things. Some of them (like the oyster card) do repeat, but that’s easy to fix in revision. Work in other details to vary the effect, but to get the same message across: that this isn’t the world she expected to wake up in.

One thing I kept coming back to as I read was the ways in which the viewpoint keeps itself at center stage. Voice is really important in first-person narrative; Holly has a lot to say, and she makes sure to remind the reader that she’s there to say it.

While it’s a good thing to be unambiguous about who’s talking, it can also get in the way of the story. Frequent viewpoint-tagging is like that person in class who keeps jumping up and yelling, “Hey! Hey! Look at me! Pay attention to me!”

Words like sawfeltrealizednoticed, serve as filters between the reader and the story. They create the impression that they don’t trust either the reader’s perceptions or their own ability to make it clear who’s telling the story. This becomes particularly noticeable when the narrative adds qualifiers like seemed and sounded to the words and actions of characters who are not the narrator.

In revision, try removing all of these filter-words and see if the story still makes sense. Often it turns out that most or even all of them don’t need to be there.

The same applies to conversational-filler phrases (of course, for example, or now in the sense of Now, this was embarrassing) and parenthetical bits (I said brightly (or as brightly as I could manage with a hangover), for example). There’s a fine line between the cool-character voice and the trying-too-hard voice. Again, cutting them all can clarify where they’re superfluous, and where they can most effectively be added back in.

The techniques of internal monologue are another case of a little goes a long way. Rhetorical questions—I had to keep moving but which way to go? or What was happening?—may seem to the writer to show the character thinking actively about what to do, but what they actually do is stop the narrative while the character spins her mental wheels. Try removing the question and just show the character taking action, even if it’s indecisive: walking in one direction, then reversing, to show that she doesn’t know where to go. See if that’s more effective, more vivid and immediate.

Saying the same thing over and over, or saying it in different ways in consecutive sentences or throughout a paragraph, can have a similar effect. Here’s an example:

It would have been so easy to slump back in my seat and doze but I had to be vigilant to make sure that I got off at the right stop. I really couldn’t face getting off at the wrong stop and having to retrace my steps, the way I felt.

Note the passive phrases—would have beenhad to be—and the repetition of stop, and the viewpoint tag at the end. These rhetorical bits put a wall of words between the reader and what’s happening. Changing to more active phrasing and removing the repetitions and the tag makes for tighter prose and a more immediate experience. Something like this:

I didn’t dare slump back in my seat and doze, in case I got off at the wrong stop and had to retrace my steps.

See what I did there? Same concepts, same key words, but shorter and pointier. Story moves forward, and we’re clear on how she feels about it.

Paring and pruning like this throughout will make the line of the narrative more distinct, bring out the most important details, and sharpen Holly’s voice and perspective. Less, as they say, is more. Just the right choice of words, just the right selection of actions and reactions, will make the story and the character pop, and bring out both Holly’s natural sassy wit and her mounting confusion.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Songs Of Transience And Permanence by Hannah Hulbert

I gravitated toward this submission because it pinged two of my Favorites buttons: magic based on music, and the Anglo-Saxon era. I am not an expert in music, but I agree with the Author’s Note that the story should get a beta read from someone who is. I can even offer Recommended Reading in the form of a historical fantasy series by an author whose knowledge of music is deep and wide: T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas. There’s a novel coming in early 2019, but in the meantime the novellas are nice and short and might provide inspiration.

As for the story itself, there are some good things going on. Music has always been used to manipulate emotions; it’s a natural extension of this to create a magical system, and a set of magic users, who wield the power of music for political purposes. It’s a nice wrinkle to tell the story of a naive young musician who tries to foment revolution through a song–and discovers that he’s not only far from the first to do so, his attempt backfires. In a way he gets what he wanted, but it’s not at all what he expected.

That’s a nice twist. So is the setting, which isn’t a common one in fantasy these days. Anglo-Saxon culture was steeped in music and song. It’s believable that adepts might work powerful magic with it.

What I’d like to focus on here is one of the author’s questions, the one about names. Names have power. In fantasy, and especially in secondary-world fantasy, they’re an essential part of the worldbuilding.

Purely coincidentally, after I had chosen this submission for the music and the setting, one of my fellow writers on Twitter put up a thread about naming in fantasy: https://twitter.com/adribbleofink/status/1031969208576368640 . The thread is mostly about cultural appropriation, but it’s also about why names are important, and why it’s important to be fully conscious of what those names mean. Even with the best of intentions, if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we can run into trouble.

Let me be quick to add that I don’t see anything appropriative about the story I’m reading here. It respects the sources, and it wants to create a cultural ambience through the use of names and terms in Anglo-Saxon. The question is about whether those names are a distraction.

My direct answer is that some of them are. Those that use special characters are confusing to the modern eye, and if the reader doesn’t know how to pronounce them, they get in the way. For myself, I would normalize the cyning/king’s name to AElfraed, which is still more authentic than not, but less likely to throw the reader’s browser into paroxysms. Mine, for example, gave me ÆlfrÇ£d.

My less direct answer has to do with the names of the main characters. Regina is a Latin name, but we aren’t told why she’s called that. Is she descended from Roman Britons? Does she come from Italy or one of the Roman provinces across the Channel?

Even if she is, her name still needs some basis in the world and the story. It’s actually a title, and tends to be applied to the Virgin Mary as Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven. It’s not uncommon in the modern world—it’s my mother’s name, in fact. But in the age of Alfred, it stands out.

The protagonist’s name presents a similar set of issues.The prose in general aims toward high fantasy, but Nicky’s name drops us down into a nickname with a modern flavor. It’s usually short for Nicholas, which is a form of the Greek name Nikolaos. As with Regina, it makes me ask if he comes from somewhere other than the land of the Angles and the Saxons. Or if he is a native Saxon, and he’s been given a saint’s name (as Regina has been given a title of the Virgin Mary), that points to a Christian presence. But we don’t see it in the story–and we should; it was a major influence on the whole culture, from top to bottom.

As a reader, I want to know why the author chose those particular names in a story that is so careful otherwise to describe the world and its people in Anglo-Saxon terms. Why not give these two characters Anglo-Saxon names? What is the reasoning behind the choice? How does the worldbuilding support it? What is its significance within the setting?

It’s perfectly possible to use those names in a story set in the age of Alfred, but as a reader, I want to understand why. The story is about these characters; they’re its focus. Their names should speak to the core of who and what they are–and tell us a great deal about the world in which they live.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Waters of Life by Jim McDougall

Writers often tend to focus on figuring out what happens next.  Each sentence leaves them with that horrible question hanging before them.  But good writing often arises not from thinking about what happens next, but from focusing on making each moment, the now of the story, as intense and powerful as possible.

“Waters of Life” has several powerful and memorable moments.  At Cedar Lake Resort, Brian sees a very old photo of the nearby dock and realizes his wife, Julia, is in the picture.  I’ve read some other stories where things like this happen, so that in itself didn’t strike me as powerful.  The memorable moment, for me, occurs when the image of his wife becomes blurry:  “He couldn’t tell if Julia was actually there, or if he had mistaken her for a shadow, or even a smudge or wrinkle on the paper.”  This created a vivid image in my mind, created uncertainty that intellectually engaged me (as I tried to figure out what was happening) and gave me a chill.  Was that Julia in the photo?  How could she be there?  Why did she fade?

Another powerful moment occurs when Julia, who we know is hours away at work, appears in Brian’s cabin.  This build a strong atmosphere of dread.  And when Julia leads Brian to the end of the dock and Brian follows her off the edge, that’s a creepy, startling, and powerful moment.

The big picture of the story is not as successful as these individual moments.  Much of the power of the big picture of a story arises from two qualities:  unity and focus.  Unity means all the elements of the story (plot, character, setting, point of view, style, genre, symbols, themes, imagery, etc.) work together to creat a particular effect.  Focus means that the effect created is clear and limited.  While this story has some nice writing and some strong moments, it is not yet unified or focused.  A good test to see if your story is unified and focused is to try to summarize it (including the ending) in one sentence.  If you can’t, or if the sentence ends up being very long and having multiple parts to it that don’t strongly relate to each other, then you probably have a problem.  In this case, my summary would be something like “A husband follows an image of his wife into a lake and drowns, and his wife discovers a woman who looked just like her drowned in the lake the day before she was born, and the manager’s mother reveals, I think, that she has used her magic powers to kill Julia and possibly to kill the other woman years ago.”  This sentence, with three independent clauses connected by ands, describes what I’d call a stringy plot.  Each part feels pretty separate from the others rather than strongly interconnected.  So I don’t feel a lot of unity or focus.

Let’s look in more detail at various parts of the story to understand this “stringiness” better.  The setting is given some prominence through the amount of description it receives and the location of the description (at the opening of the story and at the opening of another scene–very prominent locations), suggesting the cabins are deceptive or threatening in some way.  Yet that isn’t true.  The reader is promised a story about a dangerous resort, but that is never delivered.

Quite a bit of emphais is put on Julia’s workaholic nature, suggesting the story will be about the marital troubles this causes, yet that turns out to be irrelevant to the story, beyond providing an excuse for Julia to arrive late.

The first chunk of the story, ending in Brian’s death, suggests the story will be about this ghostly Julia figure.  We later learn that this look-alike woman, Samantha, drowned the day before Julia was born, implying Julia may be the reincarnation of Samantha (which then makes me wonder how Samantha can also be a ghost).  But the ghost never appears again in the story, and Julia never makes any attempt to contact the ghost or fight the ghost to get Brian back, or destroy the ghost, and she never shows any sign of being a reincarnation of Samantha, beyond her birth date and her appearance.  So we seem to be promised a ghost story, and then a reincarnation story, but those promises are also not fulfilled.

Finally, we meet the resort manager’s mother, Cathy, who seems to have supernatural powers that can “alter the very fabric of time and space.”  While we don’t see her using this power, it seems that she has killed Julia in her sleep, and that she may have killed Samantha, though I’m not sure why she killed either of them.  The story then, ultimately, seems to be about a malicious woman who uses her power to kill people.  But it’s unclear whether she had anything to do with the appearance of Samantha’s ghost or the death of Brian–the things I care about most in the story.  And this story about a malicious, powerful woman hasn’t been set up.  We only have a small piece of this story.

So it feels like we have pieces of several different stories here rather than one unified story.  I think any of these stories could be involving and disturbing, but we need to get just one story.

One other point I’d like to mention is that Brian and Julia generally seem to be victims with no chance of success.  A story generally needs a protagonist who has some power, some ability to affect circumstances.  That creates suspense as we wonder whether the protagonist will be able to escape from some difficult situation, solve some problem, or achieve some goal.  The protagonist doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but he needs to have at least some, so he can struggle to succeed and we can have hope that he might.  Neither Brian nor Julia seem to have any power to escape their situations.

I hope this is helpful.  I was quite drawn in by the opening of the story, and I really enjoyed those powerful, memorable moments.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey