Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[ February 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: Stephen Whitehouse
Submission: Becoming What You Hate by Guy Cheston
Submitted by: Guy Cheston

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Luck is a pretty universal concept. Some believe in it, others don’t. But think about what the world–or the universe–would be like if luck was a real, almost physical thing that could be shared, hoarded, or withheld.

Now go write a story about that idea. Make it your own.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

Editor’s Choice Review March 2017, Short Story

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

Biddy by Caleb March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Fantasy

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

Talisman And Bone by Karen Kobylarz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Science Fiction

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

Garden Of Purgatory C4C Revised by Robin Zell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Judith Tarr

Site Updates!

We’re pleased to announce a pair of minor feature enhancements that members have been requesting!
  • By default, the Online Writing Workshop offers reviewers the ability to rate submissions by a number of criteria in addition to the primary critique method of entering their feedback. While some authors enjoy the “star ratings,” others do not; to enable everyone to have the workshop experience that they prefer, we’ve added the ability for authors to suppress the ratings area when reviewers critique their submissions.To disable the ratings area:
    1. Click the drop-down list next to the My Dashboard button.
    2. Click Account.
    3. In the Preferences section, select the Block reviewers from using the ratings when critiquing my submissions check box.
    4. Click Update Preferences.
  • When a reviewer saves a review in progress but does not submit it, the review remains in the Reviews section of the Dashboard. By default, if an author archives the submission, the review still remains in the Reviews section, although the reviewer cannot update it. We’ve now added the option for reviewers to hide these reviews!To suppress in-process critiques if the author shelves the submission:
    1. Click the drop-down list next to the My Dashboard button.
    2. Click Account.
    3. In the Preferences section, select the Hide draft reviews on dashboard if the author archives the submission check box.
    4. Click Update Preferences.
Note: The reviews remain on the database. If the author later unarchives the submission, the review is again displayed in the Reviews section, and the reviewer can update it.
In addition to these changes, the new Account option provides access to existing functionality in a new place, the Accounts page.
  • The Membership area displays your membership expiration date, and provides a link for you to extend your membership if you choose to do so.
  • The Info area provides links that enable you to update your profile and to change your password.
We hope you enjoy this new functionality! Please let us know what you think, and if there are any other improvements we can make for you!

Member News Of Note

OWW alumni continue to gather award nominations.

Beth Cato not only writes great fiction, she writes excellent poetry. Her long poem, “The Box of Dust and Monsters” has been nominated for a 2017 Rhysling Award.

N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Obilisk Gate has been nominated for a 2017 Best Novel Nebula Award.

Fran Wilde’s novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary has been nominated for a 2017 Novelette Nebula Award.

Congratulations to all of you!

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Horror

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

Queen Of The Wilis (Updated) by Kelsey Hutton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Publication News

Gregor Hartmann shared some great news: “My story “Everyone Is Rising,” which was critiqued here about two years ago, has been published in the current (February) issue of Perihelion. The editor said he liked it — except for the last page. So I wrote an alternative ending. He didn’t like that, and proposed a second alternative ending. I didn’t like that, so I wrote a third alternative ending. We tinkered with the last two sentences and finally got the ball across the goal line.”

Suzanne Lazear wrote: “The book I workshopped on OWW came out in 2012 (Innocent Darkness), the sequels in 2013 and 2014 (the Aether Chronicles Series) . I had a new series start in 2016 (The Secret Lives of Rockstars) with the next book releasing in 2017. Thanks!”

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Short Story

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

Kings Of Snow by Cecile Cristofari

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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