Editor’s Choice Award April 2019, Science Fiction

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

So Far From Home Chapter 7 by L. K. Pinaire

This submission has a lot of good things going on. The variety of aliens, the thought that’s gone into depicting their physiology and psychology as well as the human protagonist’s interactions with them, the acknowledgment that they all speak different languages and there’s no easy out via a universal translator. At the same time they find common ground through human cultural references, notably poker and sex workers.

I might ask whether alien species would necessarily be binary, or whether they would be inclined to buy and sell their reproductive rituals and if so whether it would be the females who were sold, but since this is a single chapter of a much longer work, it’s possible that question has been answered elsewhere. Here I’ll focus on the prose and the execution, on the way the chapter reads, and what I think might help it read more smoothly and clearly.

Often when we’re writing a draft, we get focused on what’s right in front of us, word by word and sentence by sentence. Human memory being what it is, especially if we’re writing in fits and spurts around our daily lives, we forget what we just said, even while we retain an overall idea of what we’re trying to say. It’s pretty common for a draft to pop up with word and phrase echoes—verbatim or near-verbatim repetitions within a sentence or two. This is a good example:

Ashee frowned and looked across the table. “Are we playing cards or talking?”

I dealt the next hand and looked around the table.

The word looked is a frequent flyer in this chapter. Characters do a lot of looking. When it comes time for the final polish, it might be worthwhile to think about varying not just the word but the action itself. What other things can characters do as they interact with each other and their surroundings?

Watch for odd images and visualizations that make the reader stop and back up:

The diminutive Dweller’s long scraggly hair hid his dark skin, pronounced forehead, bulging frogeyes, and high cheekbones.

That’s a lot of territory for scraggly hair to cover. Wouldn’t his skin color be visible elsewhere than his face? Can he see through his hair? Is it really important for us to know the exact details of his features, since they supposedly aren’t visible?

A little bit later,

Ashee pursed his lips under his bulbous eyes, like someone suppressing a grin.

Are his lips directly below his eyes? No nose or other facial features between them?

There’s some awkward phrasing, too, that could be smoothed and clarified in revision.

Facing forward, he turned his eyes back like a frog and might have been looking at the ceiling behind him.

It took me a minute to parse the sentence and figure out what he’s doing. Breaking up the clauses and separating the different actions into their own sentence-space might make the meaning clearer.

Here’s another sentence that made me stop and reread:

A sly smile worked its way from his tiny lips, forcing the corners upward.

I’m not quite sure about the logistics of the smile. It almost seems to exist independently of his lips—like the stet, which is a fascinating concept.

It is rather awkwardly described as his other half, the opaque, apparition-like portion of him, and the name has some odd resonances for editors and proofreaders, since it’s the word we use to refuse an editor’s change. It means “let it stand.” Is that intentional?

In any case that’s not the only action or reaction that seems to have independent existence:

He gave me a matter-of-fact expression

as if a facial expression were a solid object that could be given by one person to another. In the context of the stet it almost makes sense.

The habit of stating what a thing is, comma, then defining it makes for somewhat uneven, choppy reading.

Tiem stood and raised his grippers, the ones that were his equivalents of hands

might read more smoothly if it were tightened into something like raised his hand-like grippers.

Overall, the pacing of the chapter could be quicker. The poker game as a way of sharing a human cultural phenomenon and bonding with the disparate members of the crew is a good idea. With tightening and focus, smoothing and clarifying the prose, it could become a great one.

One thing to look for in revision is the way characters repeat the same actions and reactions in between chunks of exposition, often in the form of dialogue. Character asks a leading question, other character Explains Stuff.

Some spoken explanations can work well, but even a little too much can turn a conversation into a lecture. When that happens, the plot stalls. Shorter, more concise explanations and even a quick line or two of straight narrative containing the details that the reader needs to know at this particular point, can help get the story moving again, and moving along more briskly, too.

Another reliable plot-mover is variety. While a poker game does consist of a lot of repeated activity, in revision it can be useful to pick out different details in each repetition. That way the reader gets a more rounded, varied view of what’s going on. Think of it as changing the camera angle within the scene, showing different sides of the action.

There’s a lot of potential here, and some good ideas and worldbuilding. Best of luck, and happy revising!
–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 2019, Horror

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

 

The Vampire Mystique by Steve Brady

The moments that stand out for me in this story juxtapose normal-sounding sentiments with violent, disturbing sentiments. As I read along with my guard down, coming upon these violent thoughts creates a powerful (and entertaining) shock; for example, “My casual-friendly voice is good, even though I plan to eventually torture him to death.” The sentence takes us from a person concerned about his tone of voice to one planning murder. That works really well. More than providing a shock, such moments reveal character and reflect the unique type of horror this character embodies (which I would describe as mundane horror, meaning horror intertwined with mundane, everyday elements). I really enjoyed this aspect of the story.

An area of the story that I think could be improved is tone. Some parts of the story create a dark, disturbing tone. For example, the description of the detained men castrating a fellow inmate is disturbing. Other parts create an absurd tone. For example, the opening scene feels absurd to me, with Darren thinking that putting a dead squirrel in a mailbox is a horribly evil deed. His actions there seem kind of pathetic to me. The disturbing tone and the absurd tone don’t work well together. Each weakens the other. If the story is meant to be disturbing and horrific, then we need those qualities throughout, and they need to grow stronger as the story progresses. If the story is mean to be absurd, then, similarly, we need absurdity throughout that grows stronger. If the story is mean to offer some sort of mix, then the two qualities need to be mixed in each scene rather than alternating, first one and then the other, so the story feels unified and we understand how to read the story.

As is, I don’t feel I know how to read the story. Parts of the story seem to indicate that the first-person narrator, Darren, is a threat. The two strongest pieces of evidence of this are his removal of the stop sign that leads to someone being killed and his plan to blow up burger restaurants. The only thing that seems to stop him from blowing up the restaurants is being arrested by the police because he happens to be driving a car owned by someone wanted by the police (this is not part of a strong causal chain–but that’s another topic for another day). Would he have gone through with it if he hadn’t been arrested? I think so, but then he doesn’t actually do anything violent in the story. So I’m left uncertain what I’m supposed to think about him and his violent tendencies. The story seems to be promising me (in places, anyway) a story about a very violent man–and I’m reading the story because I like horror–so I’m disappointed when there is no violence and the character doesn’t seem violent.

If Darren is supposed to be an unreliable narrator who thinks of himself as an elite, violent man but is actually a loser who plays little tricks on people, then that needs to be clearer. In this case, the burger restaurant plot doesn’t seem to fit. If he thinks about it, he should discard it because he doesn’t know how to make rockets and end up instead sticking a dead squirrel in a sesame-seed bun and putting in in the restaurant for someone to find. And if he removes a stop sign and someone dies in the resulting car accident, I think he wouldn’t feel good about that. He might repress it or explain it away somehow, rather than celebrating it. I feel pulled back and forth between the two tones and the two views of the character.

One place where I did get a strong sense of Darren as an unreliable narrator was when he thought, “I’ll research this thing about eyes once I get a chance.” But this implied to me that he was much more evil than he knew, lacking normal eyes and a soul. It didn’t suggest that he was less evil than he believed, which I think is what the story is ultimately going for.

One way to convey that, in addition to changing the burger restaurant plan and the reaction to the stop sign death, would be to have another character point it out. The lawyer, Clifford, could mention that he’s trying to negotiate freedom for Darren because Darren isn’t like the others being locked up for life; Darren is harmless. Darren could wonder what Clifford is talking about; of course he’s not harmless. But that could let the reader know that Darren is deluded.

The ending seems to be aimed at frightening us with the possibility that Darren will someday get free. But I’m not frightened, since Darren doesn’t seem like much of a threat. So the end fizzles for me. If the ending is intended to be humorous and make me laugh at Darren’s absurd, grandiose self-image, then the absurdity needs to be carried through more consistently, and Darren needs to be shown to be an unreliable loser. If the end is intended to make me to feel sad over his deluded view of himself, then the story needs to show how these delusions ruin a life that otherwise might have promise.

The other area I’d like to discuss is flow. When a passage flows, each sentence prepares us for the next. It makes us curious about something, and the next sentence discusses that something we’re curious about, so we’re pulled ahead through the text. The order and organization of information is critical in creating flow.

Most of the story flows pretty well. But there are a few places where the flow breaks down. Let’s look at this passage:

“Exhausted from helping her brother Jamie with his depression, she relied on me for support before the study. Still oppressed by the compassion disease, I earnestly sought not only to comfort her, but to connect with her brother. Grumpy and resistant at first, he succumbed month by month to my sincerity and gentle humor.”

The first sentence is about Rose (“she”). It makes me curious about how she is doing now that she hasn’t had the narrator’s support for some time. I’m expecting the second sentence to tell me more about Rose and how she’s coping. So when I read, “Still oppressed by . . .” I think that is describing Rose. It’s not until after the comma that I learn this phrase is about the narrator (“I”). When I get to that point and realize I have misread the sentence, I have to go back to the start of the sentence and re-read, now knowing it is about the narrator. The same thing happens when I start the third sentence. I think you are talking about the narrator and only after the comma discover this sentence is about the brother. So I have to go back and re-read. Part of the problem is the periodic sentence structure, which provides the subject later in the sentence. Part of the problem is that the idea discussed in one sentence doesn’t prepare us for the idea in the next sentence. The first sentence, as I mentioned, makes me want to know how Rose is doing. The second sentence makes me want to know what overtures Darren made to Jamie. So the passage makes me want to know things that it doesn’t then provide, and instead it feels like it’s tossing random bits of information my way, so I have to get re-interested with each sentence in something new.

Giving flow a little more thought as you revise could be very helpful. I have an essay here (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html) that discusses flow in a little more depth.

I hope my comments are helpful. I enjoy the fresh take on the vampire that you’re developing here.

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

Editor’s Choice Award April 2019, Short Story

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

Calvin (Part 1 OF 3) by Colin Bishoff

“Calvin” is, as the author’s notes describe, “a difficult story to read due to the sheer nastiness of the characters.” But it also caught my eye this month through its careful work with tone, worldbuilding, pacing, and a layered internal conflict. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to dig a little deeper on the idea of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and identifying the driving action of a piece.

“Calvin” is deeply textural: smells, sounds, colours, wear and tear, tastes, a world that’s built of little realistic contradictions and things that don’t work quite right. The vivid imagery makes a scene that’s largely internal—three young men saying nasty things about other people—alive and propulsive, and the way the worldbuilding rises in the background of those everyday interactions fits the speculative element, the copies, into the story in a way that feels organic and grounded. Pair that with a well-paced delivery of new information—this doesn’t feel like 5,000 words, never mind 5,000 words of an intro—and the fundamental craft here is sound.

But I want to address that question of nastiness: what made Brett, Tom, and Willie’s awfulness tolerable, for me, to read? There are a few factors in play here.

The first is that it’s immediately clear that the narrative doesn’t endorse Brett in the slightest. The opening lines—”Maybe we weren’t human. Then again, maybe we were”—immediately set an emotional and ethical framework for what follows. They create a manual for reading “Calvin”: readers are supposed to be weighing and judging this behaviour.

As the piece continues its portrayal of Brett, the hardest-line of the three, is ungrotesquely but consistently unflattering: “his pale white belly spilling over the tops of his faded Wranglers like a pasty, freckled slug”; his father as the tightly paired “charismatic minister” and “town nuisance”. While it’s definitely a problem when we equate bad and physically ugly in our work, there’s a technique in play here that made this read differently for me. What’s being communicated, deeply embedded in Tom’s POV and through features that could have been described neutrally or are socially neutral, is Tom’s contempt for Brett. As a character, Tom notices deeply unflattering things about Brett, compared to how he describes Willie, despite Willie’s particular brand of ugliness.

And yet, it’s not uncompassionate: the story—and Tom himself—seem to clearly understand why Brett is who he is, that he’s aping his father, that there is a tangle of love and approval and posturing and shame driving him. Similarly, he seems to understand Willie: his fear of knives, the scarring of finding his father’s body, that he’ll say both helpful and hurtful things mostly to provoke. That combination of noticing, understanding, contempt, dismissal, compassion makes Tom’s distanced evaluations of his friendships feel real, but also makes it a little safer to trust Tom as a POV character. He can evaluate and admit fault, and he can see the reasons behind behaviours and complexities, so he can be trusted to narrate with reasonable reliability. Tom seems vaguely aware that he’s being goaded, that he can be goaded; that he’s not precisely a good person. That he’s doing a wrong thing.

The second is—returning to Brett’s hardline bigotry—that theirs is an awfulness with gradations. Brett, Tom, and Willie aren’t of one mind about the world. Despite being together, and having a sort of tacit agreement to not draw hard lines on each other, they give each other a lot of shit and disagreement, cloaked in the kind of ribbing some men do. The layers of endorsement and non-endorsement between them make them more complex characters in a more complex web of interaction, and also takes away the worry that “Calvin” is trying to push an ideology or sell something—even something as simple as “men like this are bad”.

The most important cue is, ultimately, back in those first lines. They present not just a framework but a tonal cue—this is a story about retrospective queasiness—that tells readers this story isn’t just going to portray awful behaviour, but meaningfully engage with the question of what was wrong with us then?

There can be, I think, a certain struggle about how graphically we want our work to portray terrible behaviours, traumas, or awful things. Depiction is not always endorsement, no, but depiction can clearly be hurtful. What was ultimately interesting about “Calvin” for me, though, was that it moves past non-endorsement into active, thoughtful engagement. Tom is wrestling with himself and his friends, and with the why of something awful that is clearly coming. We are seeing these things for a purpose. The purpose is better understanding, or resolution, or clarity, and it’s on the other side.

This means the subject matter of “Calvin”—its internal arc of conflict—isn’t actually prurient or violent behaviour but self-examination; that this story is so far one of coming to grips with oneself, and that is a highly sympathetic, engaging, and relatable trait in a narrator.

When evaluating whether a character is sympathetic, I think it’s worthwhile to note that the relatable behaviour—the sympathy—can be a few layers down in the narrative and still work, so long as there’s a point for readerly connection. And that’s, for me, the aspect that pulled me through “Calvin” and would have me read the next two parts.

As for things to look at in revision—which is difficult with a partial story!—I would suggest toning Brett down a touch. The dialect only he speaks is a bit much on the eye for me as a reader, especially since they all grew up in the same place and should speak similar dialects. Especially in the paragraph where he’s suggesting attacking Calvin, he’s also laying it on a bit thick. Paring that back would, I think, keep him from veering into cartoonish, or the “Ain’t natural” from hitting so squarely on the nose.

I’m also tempted to suggest trimming around the paragraphs with the bikes, although it’s hard to evaluate from only a third of a full story. I can say, though, that my attention wanders there. Once the decision to go after Calvin’s been made, a certain amount of the scene after feels just like obstruction between it and the narrative payoff—how this goes wrong next—until they’re traveling down the roadway, and Tom’s history with the town reconnects the story for me again.

As it stands, though, I think this is a promising first third, one that combines solid craft, regret, and the mounting foreboding of something awful in the wind with several balancing tonal factors. I’m interested to see how it concludes.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, Fantasy

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

A Cat-A-Strophic Tempest: Chapter 1 by Jennifer Dawson

I’ll come right out and say it: This submission is delightful. The author’s note warns that readers will find signs of rapid writing, NaNo style, but the only thing that pinged for me was a word or phrase here and there that might have been a placeholder for something more precisely in context. For example:You may go now, I dismissed—maybe missing the him, maybe trying to carry a bit more weight than dismissed tends to carry.

I caught a number of word echoes, too, that might have been intentional repetitions (magichappens frequently) or author’s brain catching on a particular word and repeating it from sentence to sentence (such as stuck). There’s nothing there that a little polish won’t fix.

In general, the chapter reads fast and light. The narrative voice for me is dead on. It nicely depicts a sassy and opinionated cat, but it also tells me here’s a fully rounded person of whatever species.

I get a good sense of Jack/Stupid, too. Nice guy, loves animals. Makes perfectly natural assumptions that animal-loving people tend to make. Looks for food and water (her magical coverup comes too late), sees none, does the right thing—leaves a note and takes her home.

Of course that’s actually the exact wrong thing, and there’s the heart of the humor. We see that Izobel is in a predicament, and Jack inadvertently compounds it. We don’t know all the details of her situation, but we pick up enough to get a sense of just how much worse it gets by the chapter’s end.

That’s good plotting and pacing. Often the first draft of an opening chapter front-loads the exposition, gets it all in there and spells it all out. As author’s notes and synopsis, this is solid drafting praxis, but big blocks of exposition keep the story from moving forward.

They also slacken tension and remove suspense. Especially at the beginning when we’re still making up our minds about the story and the characters, we want to know something about them, but not so much that we start to get overwhelmed with facts and details and explanations. We don’t like to be confused, but we like a little mystery. We want a reason to keep reading.

Always leave them wanting more is one of my writing mantras. Tell them just enough to whet their appetites. Reveal information gradually—a taste here, another bite there. Keep it coming fast enough that they don’t get bored, but not so fast that they can’t keep track of what’s going on.

This chapter does a good job of that. I want to keep reading; I want to find out more about why Izobel is trapped in cat form with without a cat brain. Who is she and, more to the point, what is she? Where does she come from? And how is she going to get herself out of this pickle?

I’m on board to find out.

—Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, Science Fiction

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

MATRIARCHS CHAPTER 2 by Sue Wachtman

This submission hits a number of my Favorite Things buttons. Mystery. Matriarchy. Complicated relationships. Nice chaser of wry humor with topical twist—the Pharm Lords. Indeed.

First, a structural question. When Rif and Winga are married, Hamir attaches himself to them, and stays attached. He seems to be a vehicle for exposition, supplying chunks of information and being supplied with them in turn, and adding comic relief to the awkward interaction between Rif and Winga. I wonder if there might be a more organic way to establish the worldbuilding and to develop the relationship between the new husband and wife: whether they might interact directly, without the addition of a third character, and whether we might see some of the things Winga describes in action rather than being told about them. A private, one-on-one Q&A between Rif and Winga could go in some interesting directions.

If Hamir must be there for Plot Reasons, I’d like be clearer about what those are. Chaperone? Bodyguard? Ritual separation of the newlyweds until they’re properly bound and bedded?

I also wonder why Rif takes the detour to his apartment, and why Winga acquiesces to it. It needs more grounding in the story, and more sense of how it fits into the arc of the plot.

On a more general level, I kept noticing something I call viewpoint tagging. When a writer is establishing viewpoint, she will make use of various phrases and devices that say, “This is the POV. This is the camera angle. This. Right here.” Our experience of events is filtered through one or more characters, rather than conveyed through choice of words, position within a scene (what we see and from where), or emotional reactions to what’s done and said.

Words like thought and saw and wondered will signal that someone else is experiencing events and we’re being told about them. We may get stage directions, too: His eyes moved on, or He returned to his desk and read. And we’ll get sections of internal monologue, with rhetorical questions:

What would it mean, in practical terms, for a planet to be a matriarchy?

So why was she now willing to go back?

What, oh what had he gotten himself into?

When a character stops to think about things and ask himself questions, the story stops, too. The writer’s challenge is to find ways to get the information across while also keeping the plot in motion.

Dialogue is one way to do this, but as the scenes with Hamir demonstrate, it needs to be done with care. If it turns into a form of exposition, or if the character doesn’t necessarily need to be in the scene, the plot will stall again.

Motion is key. Moving events forward. Choosing the right characters for a scene, and establishing why they’re essential to that scene. Developing arcs of emotion, of action and reaction.

Little things help, too. Choice of words. Variety in that choice. Sometimes repetition can be very effective, driving home a point or building tension. But again, this has to be done with care.

The sequence with the admiral and the cookie and the teacup has an odd sort of resonance. Picked up and cookie repeat and re-repeat. On the one hand, there’s an almost ritual quality to it. On the other, it’s not clear if it’s intentional or if it’s what I call brain-echoes—words and phrases that just keep recurring during the writing process. If it is intentional, a little polish and a bit more work on the prose will help make that clear.

In a later scene we’re told Rif’s pants are too tight. Shortly after that, he says they’re too tight. Later he goes through a sequence of suffering with them, then getting them off.

This, like Hamir’s role in the wedding and its aftermath, seems meant to be humorous. Humor needs a deft touch and spot-on timing. Pruning the repetitions will help—rather than telling and then talking, choose the one that works best for the scene—as will thinking through where the characters go after the wedding, and why they go to those particular places at that particular time.

There’s a lot of good stuff happening here. I love Winga’s deadpan comments; of all the characters in this chapter, she’s my favorite. I would definitely like to see more of her.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, Horror

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

Bait by Christopher Ivey

This story really draws me in by suggesting more than it explicitly states.  Implying or suggesting significant pieces of information is a key method of engaging readers.  This allows readers to be active participants in the story, and if done properly, it allows readers to enjoy the pleasure of figuring things out and tying them together.  The story does this several times in the opening paragraphs.

The first line, “Anton chose a knife not knowing the kind of meat it had once cut,” suggests many things:   that this story will be about cutting meat, that the type of meat being used may be mysterious or strange, that Anton will be using this knife for something important (which creates suspense), and that Anton is not knowledgeable about knives and butchering.  All of these things turn out to be true, which is good.  Sometimes authors imply or suggest things without realizing it, and those things send the reader down the wrong path, creating confusion and frustration.

Another example is in paragraph 7:  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm.”  This implies that Anton’s father doesn’t have a left arm.  While that doesn’t require a lot of mental work on the part of readers, it avoids a common and serious problem:  having the point of view character think a fact he already knows.  Here’s the usual way an author might convey this same idea:  “Anton’s father had lost his left arm.”  But since we’re in Anton’s point of view, he’s not going to think this.  He’s not going to tell himself something he already knows.  I call this type of statement an “as you know, self.”  The way to avoid the “as you know, self,” is to have the POV character think a reaction or opinion about the fact, rather than just thinking the fact.  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm” is Anton’s reaction to the fact.

One final example, and perhaps the strongest one, is in that same paragraph:  “Anton couldn’t picture [his father] in a place like this, with its clean surfaces and bright lights.  In filth and darkness:  that was where Father lived.”  This sentence not only suggests the setting, which hasn’t been previously described, it also implies a lot about Anton’s father and about Anton’s attitude toward his father.

While I really like the way the story engages me through this technique, I think the story could be improved in several ways.

The plot reveals several facts, but the revelations are not set up well, so they don’t carry the impact they might.  Scene 2 reveals that Mr. Sokolov has been making a living by selling the meat of supernatural creatures to high-paying customers.  This would work better if Scene 1 established that there was some mystery about the animals that Mr. Sokolov butchers, or about how Mr. Sokolov stays in business.  While there’s a little hint about the meat, as I mentioned above, it’s not enough to establish that this is a mystery.  The only meat described in Scene 1 is pork.  If there was another piece of meat that Anton couldn’t identify, or if Anton asked where the animals are held before butchering, that could establish the mystery.  If the mystery is established in Scene 1, then when the information is revealed in Scene 2, it will feel right, because it will answer the questions raised earlier.  Right now, it kind of comes out of the blue, and readers have to retroactively create a mystery that these new facts can explain.  Setting up the mystery would also reduce the need for Mr. Sokolov to explain the whole situation in Scene 2, which comes off as a villain monologuing his evil plan.  The less he can say and still reveal the truth, the better.  And if Anton has noticed this mystery earlier, he may be able to figure some of it out on his own, so we won’t need so much explanation from Mr. Sokolov.

Similarly, Scenes 2 and 3 seem to indicate that Anton’s father killed Anton’s mother.  But the story never established that there was any mystery about how Anton’s mother died.  So again, the information seems to come out of the blue, and it doesn’t feel right or inevitable because we had no idea that there was any question about how the mother died.  If that was set up earlier, so we had that question in our heads, then the answer would be much more satisfying .

Another area I’d like to discuss is the point of view.  Since we’re in Anton’s third person limited point of view, calling Mr. Sokolov “Mr. Sokolov” rather than “Gleb” definitely feels more appropriate.  Anton seems fairly young, so I think that is how Anton would think of him.  In other places, though, the POV seems to drift out of Anton’s head.  In some places, the voice seems to belong to someone much older, such as here:  “If Dr. Pankrat had any opinion on the matter, he didn’t express it.  He finished his work and left without further comment.”  This doesn’t sound like it’s coming from Anton.  It sounds sophisticated and adult.  In other places, the POV feels distant from Anton, as if an omniscient narrator is conveying what Anton is experiencing.  The description of Anton being hit on the head is one example:  “the pain in his skull imparted the awful truth.”  This seems both too sophisticated and too distant to be coming from Anton.  In other places, Anton’s emotions didn’t come through as powerfully as they might have.  For example, “Anton strained against the ropes that bound him to the chair.  No use.  Too tight.  Panic took hold of him” tells us Anton’s emotion through an emotional label (panic) rather than showing us Anton’s emotions.  I think Anton needs to struggle much more against the ropes before deciding that it won’t work.  Also, the struggling could be described more specifically.  Is he trying to break the ropes?  Slip out of the ropes?  Pull at the knot fastening the rope?  What kind of rope is it?  This struggle needs to be dilated (described in detail to expand and stretch out this short segment in time) to provide greater intensity.

A point related to POV is how direct thoughts are used in the story.  For me, the story has too many direct thoughts, and they’re often introduced abruptly, jarring me.  My suggestion would be to change most of the direct thoughts to indirect thoughts, so they flow better with the rest of the text.

The final area I’d like to cover is flow.  There are some places where the sentences don’t flow, and that makes me stumble in my reading and get thrown out of the story.  One basic principle of flow is to create expectations in one sentence that are satisfied by the next sentence.  These two sentences lack that flow:  “Most of these cryptic marks were unfamiliar, but there was one that Anton knew he had seen before.  Few of the symbols reminded Anton of other things.”  The first sentence clearly makes us expect the following sentence will discuss the one symbol that Anton had seen before.  Yet the next sentence doesn’t do that.  So the flow is disrupted.

Another example of disrupted flow is here:  “Anton did as he was told and stood watching his blood marinade the pork while Mr. Sokolov found gauze.  His pulse pounded in his temples.”  The first sentence leaves me with a focus on Mr. Sokolov, so I’m expecting the next sentence to involve Mr. Sokolov and the gauze.  Yet the next sentence shifts the focus back to Anton and takes us inside Anton.  That’s a jarring break in the flow.  Once you start looking at your sentences for flow, these issues aren’t hard to fix.  I wrote a blog post recently on this topic, “Uncovering the Mysteries of Narrative Flow in the Opening of Stephen King’s 11/22/63,” which you can find here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.

I was really drawn in by the story and enjoyed the originality of the situation.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, Short Story

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

In The Darkness, Defending The Wall by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” caught my attention this month with its clean rendering of an average dystopian day, done in quick lines—and how it manages to complicate and stretch its world off the page though the use of small details. It’s a simple, tidy, tonal piece, but one which might well trip itself up on its own worldbuilding. So this month, I’d like to talk about message stories, flash stories, and how working with assumption makes them both work and falter.

“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t aiming for subtle, and doesn’t reach it: it’s pretty clearly an indictment of current American policy and attitudes, an if-this-goes-on. It makes several smart choices at the outset, the biggest of which is to keep it short. As has come up in prior Editor’s Choice months, there’s a tricky readability balance to walk with fiction that’s directly built to criticize an attitude or policy. Under 1500 words is a good length for this kind of message piece: long enough to make an impact, but short enough to not overstay its welcome.

Leaning into the dense worldbuilding that word limit necessitates is the second smart choice. The grim near-future of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” is on from the second line: flickering lightbulbs, fake IDs, and hostility, and all of it packed into sentences that also advance the plot. The story snaps to life so fast because Stacey’s aggrieved nastiness carries worldbuilding information and creates the conflict—will she or won’t she let them access medical care?—while fairly clean, direct sentences move the story perpetually forward.

But what really made this piece work for me is the sense, scattered like breadcrumbs all the way through, of systems that are flickering and breaking; of Stacey’s stress and frustration and ungenerosity being fed constantly by living in that wreckage. This is a future where epidemics are common, the infrastructure doesn’t work, and soda’s a luxury, and Stacey is surviving by clinging to the rules. The constant sense of precarity, of things about to shatter, complicates Stacey’s own character just enough, away from what the Strange Horizons submission guidelines used to call a Bad Man Gets Punished story. Instead, we’re seeing the tip of an iceberg of systems, and it deepens the questions at the heart of the piece.

I also appreciate that “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t prescribing a grand solution to the problems it poses. It merely lays out the problems. This isn’t a conversion narrative—Stacey is basically back to her usual attitudes by the end of the piece—and it doesn’t feel as if it’s staring through the fourth wall, demanding a certain action of readers. It merely portrays, and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

All that combines to make “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” deeply effective, but the major place I hesitate is at the ploy of two women kissing to somehow gain Stacey’s sympathy. Even if the implication at the end of the piece is true—that they are coyotes and know about Donna, and were targeting her with that knowledge—the society that’s been constructed here is one that’s institutionally homophobic to the point of state-sanctioned exile (and off-the-books murder). I’m not sure how this would be a safe ploy for the two women: they’re more likely to be arrested, beaten to death, or both than to walk out of the hospital safely with medical care.

In that one plot point, there’s an odd assumption of how bigotry impacts people: that it’s abstract, or somehow a game overlaid on top of a “regular” set of social rules. That there’s nobody else in this room to create consequences, or enforce that social norm. That there’s a hierarchy of difference: minority attributes that will somehow, even in an oppressive state, be looked at as the Nice Ones Which Get You Pity. That, at the end of the day people will play fair and engage tolerance instead of exiling—the stated penalty—or murdering these characters in cold blood.

That unrealism shows again in having the characters be Mexican, but in Florida, but still potentially coyotes illegally crossing a border that’s got mud and pine needles nearby. It’s not geographically possible or probable. It’s the kind of detail that, if even looked at strongly, falls apart completely.

What makes other parts of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” work is what sabotages it here: shorthanding to symbols that the author can be sure readers already have in their heads in order to build information quickly, without expending wordcount or story space. While that works well with the flickering power grid, the assumption that an immigration wall means the Mexican border and a fence completely undermines what might actually happen here. The assumption that it is at all safe for a lesbian couple to out themselves so extravagantly in a state where, the story itself says, people are beaten to death or exiled for homosexuality does the same sabotage.

I recognize this could be a small point, and it’s one that’s supposed to illuminate the targeting and profiling the women have done in advance. But the problem here is that the effects of our assumptions don’t just live on the page. We’re in speculative fiction; realism about our worlds and technologies is optional. But realism about the experiences and obstacles people face is crucial, because those people are our readers, and the shorthands and archetypes we put on a page have a real effect on their real lives. There are elements of craft that when we shorthand, we can do harm.

I think these are issues that can be addressed without too much work: a little research on a more plausible country of origin for Pedro and his mother, a more plausible route or tell that they might have crossed a border recently. A little thought put into what that hinge, that profiling sign might be. With work and some thought about how it might be read in the context of readers’ day-to-day lives, “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” will quite plausibly hit all the notes it aimed to—and stop hitting ones it didn’t.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Fantasy

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

The Broken Vessel Chapter 1 by Ravenna Corvin

Usually when I read an unfinished ms., I recommend that the author finish it before worrying about line edits. So much can change between the first draft and the final, and fixing lines and words can take up time that might be spent working on larger structural issues. It’s all too tempting to spin the wheels forever in the first few pages, and never quite make it past them.

That being said, when I made this Editor’s Choice selection I knew I’d be looking at the line-by-line. When we read a chapter at a time, that’s the most obvious thing we can address; the larger structure is harder to extrapolate. Therefore I’m going to issue my Standard Disclaimer: There is no wrong way to write a first draft, however you get the words down is just fine, and don’t worry about the finer points until you have the whole thing in front of you in whatever form it needs to take. What I say here is by way of “keep this in reserve for later” and “worry about it after you’ve completed the draft.”

I chose this submission for this month’s Fantasy Chapter Editor’s Choice because as much as it may need copyedits and polish, it’s got great bones. It presents a world both rich and strange, a set of characters I would be interested to hear more about, and the promise of a plot that will unfold through intriguing twists and turns. I want to know who the protagonist really is, what secret she’s hiding, and where the developments of this chapter will take each of the people we meet. I’m particularly taken with the rule of signs—that only the royal family can speak aloud. The signs themselves are vividly imagined; I can see them in my mind as they’re described.

All of these lovely elements will be even stronger with a solid copyedit and some careful proofreading. The draft shows signs of what will be with figurative language that occasionally sings: Voices, Ilph’s invisible companions, whispered in her mind — restless, paranoid, spiteful.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here:

Back straight, chin raised, eyes piercing, Emperor Tigal floated over the Polis as though hovering.

Floating and hovering are more or less similes. Perhaps just say he’s hovering? Or floating?

Words get out of control here and there. She’d more likely clutch the neck of her robe than the neckline; black eyeliner is spelled kohl rather than coalThe surrogate he used in favor of giving her a name seems to mean something like “the sobriquet he used instead of a proper name.” I’m a bit confused by the saliva that turns into a viscous paste. Usually in that emotional state, my mouth dries out and I can’t generate any saliva at all. Or, as happens with Ilph, I’ll choke on bile. Here too, when ire marked his face, a sort of leashed frustration, the connotations aren’t quite on point. Ire is anger; it’s not particularly controlled or leashed, and it’s a different and stronger emotion than frustration.

Sometimes it’s useful in the final copyediting pass to take a sentence apart and make sure the different sections connect in the ways they’re meant to. In this passage

Long metal spikes stabbed through the woman’s arms, legs, hands, and shoulders to keep her suspended.

I had to read through a couple of times to connect the spikes and the suspension; it might have been clearer if the sentence had read something like, “The woman hung suspended from long metal spikes that stabbed through her arms, legs, hands, and shoulders.”

When she drove her mouth into an apathetic line, the concepts didn’t quite mesh for me. Apathy is limp, passive. Driving is a little too strong, and not exactly apposite. Perhaps a less vehemently active verb here—flattened, perhaps, or compressed.

I’m not sure about the visual of His forehead wrinkled, the lines coming to a head between his eyebrows. It’s very precise, and it repeats later, so seems to carry some significance, but whatever that is needs to be made clearer. Or just say he frowned? That seems to be what he’s doing. (There’s a tendency of late to misplace the frown to the mouth. It’s actually a forehead gesture, and the sentence quoted here describes it.)

I’m a little bemused by the repeated image of a character shifting weight between his feet. It reads as if he’s built like a bird with very short legs and a proportionally large body that essentially sits on top of his feet. Presuming that he has human proportions, is he shifting his weight from foot to foot, sort of bouncing back and forth?

In a fantasy as atmospheric as this one, with such strong emotional ebb and flow, it’s important to pay close attention to the nuances of words and phrases. Words should mean what they’re intended to mean, and the connections between them should be clear and cogent. It’s a good idea to pay attention to which words and phrases repeat, too.

Every writer has a tic, a tendency to come back over and over to particular words and phrases. The tic can vary from work to work, but there’s always something that keeps cropping up. In this chapter, it’s eyes acting independently of the people they belong to. Eyes trace, roam, trail, examine, jump. They’re lined with kohl, they’re full of menacing threat—a duplication that can be pruned to one of the synonyms, menace or threat. Rethinking some of these, finding other body parts to focus on, and shifting the agency from the eyes to the person who owns them, will sharpen the imagery and make the writing more active and vivid.

As I said above, these are all suggestions for the late phases of revision, when the novel is complete. In the draft stage, the priority is to get the words on the page, to sort out the characters and get the structure of the plot working well enough to move everything forward.

There’s plenty of time later to hone and polish the prose. For now, my best advice to just get it done. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And yes, I would read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Science Fiction

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

Ammi’s Broken Vase by S.Z. Siddiqui

Flash fiction is an art unto itself. To tell a complete story in as few words as possible, without sacrificing any of the elements of good storytelling, takes both guts and skill. Every single word counts.

“Ammi’s Broken Vase” ups the ante by working in two separate timelines, builds a world and a complex set of emotional conflicts, adds in literally breathless tension, and does it all in under a thousand words. I salute the author; even in draft, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

I’d like to suggest a couple of ways to make the prose even leaner. The structure of the story, to my eye, is sound; the transitions between the timelines might be a little smoother, but overall it moves well into and out of past and present. There are a few places where paring and streamlining may help with both pacing and narrative flow.

The question I always ask when I line-edit, whether it’s my own prose or a fellow writer’s, is: “Is this word or phrase absolutely essential? If I take it out, will the story make just as much sense? Do I really, really need it?” I also ask: “If I do need this word, is it the exact right one?”

In the final paragraph, for example, do we need to know that the steps are blue? Do we need the word “foyer” or the viewpoint tag “She knew” or are these concepts implied in the rest of the sentence?

Repetition of words, phrases, and ideas can be an effective rhetorical device, but in a flash piece, the rule of less is more tends to apply. A sequence like this

She passed out drunk at Kulsoom’s house. When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV with no ulterior motives, Lubna resolved to drown herself in the red wine she brought.

might be condensed into a single, shorter sentence:

When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV, Lubna passed out, drowning herself in the red wine she’d brought.

Sometimes when we want to keep the word count down, we may condense multiple ideas into a long phrase or string of phrases—packing it all in as tightly as possible. The effect can be a bit crowded, as in the last paragraph: Her lungs almost escaped with the air they expelled as the first cough erupted. There’s an almost songlike quality to this sentence, but it’s a little hard to parse. Opening it up and rearranging it, even adding a word or two, would make it clearer. This might even be an occasion to wield a familiar phrase: she’s literally coughing up a lung.

The overriding concept of flash fiction is focus. Focus on the point of the piece, focus each word and phrase, choose effects with care. No excess; nothing superfluous. It’s wonderful how a well-conceived flash piece—and I think this one is; I love the theme of the broken vase, and the world in which breathing is anything but a natural or simple process—can do so much with so few words. It’s a kind of magic.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2019, Horror

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

Salt by Billy Palmer

I was happy to find your story here. “Salt” shows us a unique, striking world filled with mystery and magic that is beyond understanding. Some strong sensory details, such as the buzzing cicadas, the croaking bullfrogs, and Sheena’s black teeth, help to put us in this world. Salt is an interesting character, and his relationship with the zombie-like Maguire is quite intriguing. The story draws me in to trying to understand what has happened with Salt and Maguire. I get a strong sense of people struggling to function alongside powers far beyond their control.

I think the story could be improved in several ways. The first-person narrator’s goals are seldom clear, which makes the story feel slow at times and feel as if it is being manipulated by the author rather than driven by the narrator. The narrator’s goal in Act 1 is the strongest; I think she wants to save Maguire. But I don’t know what she thinks she needs to do to save Maguire, and I don’t feel her struggling to save Maguire, so the narrator’s actions feel random. She seems to be killing time waiting for something to happen. If we knew from the beginning that Sheena had told the narrator that brewing tea from the herbs and making him drink it every day would save him, then I would share the narrator’s outrage when Maguire dies. As is, I don’t know what she’s expecting or how she thinks she’s going to get it, so I can’t feel suspense or anticipation or surprise. We need to have expectations and to see events following some sort of causal chain to be able to feel suspense, anticipation, or surprise. Sheena seems to promise only transformation, and the narrator doesn’t seem to believe in this possibility, so I don’t know why the narrator is in the forest or why she’s brewing up the herbs.

When the protagonist’s (in this case, the narrator’s) actions seem random rather than directed toward a goal and don’t follow a clear causal chain, then it feels like the author is making things happen. While, of course, the author makes everything happen, the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own and the characters have agency. The narrator seems to have no reason to wander and find the path of white sand, since she should be brewing the herbs, and saving Maguire is her goal. If she had a reason to leave Maguire–to find water to brew the herbs, for example–she could find the path of white sand and the reader could feel there’s a good reason for her to do so. Many of the narrator’s actions could profit from being reframed so that her goal causes her to do them.

The story also sends us a clear signal that the narrator has interrupted the normal process of life and death in the forest by breaking the salt circle in which she finds Salt. That seems to lead to Salt being an unfinished version of Maguire, unable to fully take his place, and I think this also leads to Maguire not being absorbed back into the forest and instead having a zombie-like existence. This is the most important action in the story, and it seems to occur by chance, not for any strong reason, and the narrator never reacts to it. It would be better if this had a strong cause, and if it also had strong consequences, such as the narrator going to Sheena and asking if she can finish the process or fix the broken circle. The problem of the broken circle also needs to be explicitly raised in the story, otherwise it’s not clear that it is the cause of Salt and Maguire being as they are, and those things seem random, meaning manipulated by the author.

Once Maguire dies, the narrator’s goal to save him becomes moot, which is fine, but no clear goal arises to move us forward into Act 2. The narrator rubs resin on Maguire’s teeth, following Sheena’s instructions, but I still don’t know what she’s expecting. If she’s expecting him to transform or come back to life, why does she leave the body? If she doesn’t think he’ll come back to life, why is she rubbing the herbs on him? The narrator returns to the village run by Sheena, even though she hates Sheena, and she doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve any goal. If, instead, she was trying to get Sheena to fix the broken circle and finish the process, she would have a strong goal that is part of a chain of cause and effect. Sheena could refuse; the narrator could try to force her; the conflict could escalate and the stakes could rise.

The most exciting part of the story for me involves the narrator being trapped in a salt circle, to be transformed into something else. I don’t fully understand it, because I thought humans had to be fed to the forest, not put on stumps to become statues and then other people. So the magic seems inconsistent there. But the situation is disturbing and suspenseful. Yet the narrator gets out of it too easily. Sheena knows that Salt and Maguire are around; why wouldn’t she anticipate them freeing the narrator? Why wouldn’t she just kill the narrator and feed her to the forest? Or if she’s not threatened at all by the narrator, why wouldn’t Sheena just knock her out and walk away? If Sheena is angry because the narrator upset the salt circle with Salt inside and ruined the cycle, perhaps she’d do something to try to right the situation. Maybe she’d try to kill all three of them, since Salt and Maguire are results of a process gone wrong and the narrator is responsible. So Sheena’s goal and motivations could be thought out more, the causal chain could be clearer, and once the narrator is in danger, it could be more of a struggle for her to get out of it, if she does at all.

Perhaps, if Sheena is partly successful and the narrator partly joins with the forest and the death gods before gaining her freedom, she could use that power against Sheena, and her goal could be to defeat/kill Sheena in Act 3. Right now, she returns to town with the goal to do something to Sheena, but that seems to shift as the story progresses. First she wants information; then she wants to reveal Sheena as a fraud; then she wants to run away. None of the goals lasts long or requires much struggle, so this is not a well-formed act where suspense builds. Also, since the goal for Act 2 was unclear, it’s not clear that we’re now in Act 3. Making her goals clear for each act will add excitement and suspense.

For me, the ending wasn’t satisfying, since the narrator and her companions escaped without much difficulty and Sheena and the death gods continued as before. The ending might have more power if it showed the narrator had been unable to escape the situation and had been irrevocably changed by it. Perhaps she takes Sheena’s place. That would be more disturbing for me.

That brings me to my last point, which is the horror element. While I enjoyed the dark magic, I never felt frightened by it. Some moments could profit from dilation–slowing the pace by describing in intense, vivid detail–so we feel entrapped in those moments. For example, when the narrator is sitting on the stump and being encircled with the salt, that moment could be slowed down more, so we could really feel the narrator beginning to transform and sense her connecting to the forest and the death gods.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere the story created, as well as the world and the magic, and there are some very nice descriptions. I hope my comments are helpful.

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