Editor’s Choice Review September 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.

The Sharp-Edged Detritus Of Broken Words by Marion Engelke

Lately I’ve been happening across submissions that trend toward the all-the-details end of the draft spectrum. This is a thoroughly valid process, and can result in beautiful, rich and layered fiction. But in revision, the emphasis will be on pruning and paring away the extra words to uncover the structure of the story.

This time I’ve opted to look at a submission that falls on the other end of the range. It’s lean and honed and totally pared down. There’s nothing extra; everything that’s there is meant to be there.

“The Sharp-Edged Detritus of Broken Words” holds together with exquisite precision. I didn’t miss any information about the dragons within the context of the story. Everything worked for me; some aspects were implied rather than explicit, but the implication was clear. This is a good example of how to choose just the right details, and the reader pick up the rest.

My questions about the worldbuilding are fascination-questions, rather than “I’m missing this from the story” questions. I love the idea of dragons singing languages into and out of existence, and turning written words into edged weapons. It’s gorgeous. I wanted to know where the dragons come from, whether they show up everywhere in the same year, where they go in between, and why the period is so precise. And who figured out what they do, if everyone’s mind and world are so altered? What happens to the trove of salvaged books? Is it always one scholar who saves them? Does she pass on her knowledge? Is someone or something controlling the dragons? Is there a reason for what they do? And what about people in their houses? How do they protect themselves against the word-shrapnel? What is the process that alters everything about them? What does it look like, feel like?

So many questions, but that’s a sign of success. The worldbuilding is so tight and focused and pointed, but there’s so much underneath. I want to know more. I want to see more of this world, and understand it better. And at the same time, I’m content with what I see in this one story. It covers what it needs to cover.

One thing I would suggest, since this is so tightly written and so precisely constructed, is to really, really watch the way the words fit together. It’s always important to hunt down and kill infelicities of grammar and syntax in one’s writing, but they’re particularly important in a story as concise as this.

I noted that prepositions sometimes wander out of bounds, or idioms don’t quite parse. For example:

tips and tricks of what to plant when and where, of what to do

The more common idiom would probably be for rather than of.

a burgeoning fruit and vegetable patch behind the house was going a long way for keeping food

And here, toward would be the more standard usage than for.

Rosa passed under the row of iron spears of the portcullis into the city’s unnerving silence

This is what I call a prepositional pileup. It’s maybe trying a shade too hard to be concise. Opening it up and separating the phrases would make the meaning a little clearer and the flow a little smoother.

What in all that’s holy are you doing here?”

The usual phrase is “in the name of all that’s holy.” I kind of like the shortened form here, but it might catch a copy editor up short.

Everybody moved in a flowing, gliding gait

Here again, there’s a sort of logic to it, but the idiom is more usually “with a flowing gait.”

And finally, here’s a bit of story-blocking that made me stop to figure out the visual:

The voice sounded from her right. Rosa flinched and jumped to her feet. A woman stood in front of her

The voice is coming from the right but the woman is in front of her?

These are really quibbles. Structurally and conceptually the story is lovely. I want to see more—to know what happened when Rosa went home—but I’m satisfied with the amount of story that I’ve been given. It’s rounded; it’s complete. I have enough information to imagine what happens next. The important parts are all there. The rest is a lovely silence.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review September 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.

Vamp, Part 2: The Years We Waste by David Busboom

Writers often talk about voice without really knowing what it is.  A weak or inappropriate voice in an otherwise strong story can destroy it.  A strong voice can make us love a mediocre story.  Voice is the personality of the character as revealed through his use of the language.  That means voice is the cumulative effect of many small decisions on the part of the author, which explains why it can be challenging to control.  While voice is important in all fiction, it is most important in stories told in first person.  In first person, the character is usually speaking directly to us, telling us his story.  In real life, some people make you want to sit down and listen to their stories, while others don’t.  In large part, this is due to their voice, their personality, the way they tell a story.  A narrator’s first-person voice needs to show readers that being a good storyteller is part of his personality.  The narrator needs to have interesting, fresh observations that allow readers to see events in a new and compelling way.  Those are the qualities that can pull readers in and keep them turning the pages, even when nothing earth-shattering is happening.

The first-person voice in Vamp draws me into part 2 without even having read part 1.  The voice feels believable and consistent (convincing me this is a real person talking to me), and it flows well–the narrator, Dave, is a good storyteller.  More than that, the language reveals to me that Dave is educated and reflective, and that he has a mix of influences ranging from popular culture to archaic lore.  These qualities make his observations, thoughts, descriptions, and reflections precise (which allows me to vividly experience them), interesting, and sometimes compelling.  That is a major strength of this novel excerpt.

An element in the excerpt that could be strengthened is the causal chain.  The causal chain is made up of the cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  A simple way to create causality is to make sure actions or events are connected with “therefore” or “which leads to.”  This happens, therefore this happens, which leads to this happening.  If the cavalry shows up to save your heroes but no one called the cavalry, and we’ve never seen the cavalry before, we’ll feel like the author is manipulating the story.  Of course the author is manipulating the story, but readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.  The causal chain is critical for this.  The causal chain not only helps the reader to believe in the story but is also critical to create suspense and surprise.  Suspense involves anticipating and worrying about what might happen, and we can’t do that if events are happening randomly, only if there are causal connections.  Surprise involves things happening other than the ones we anticipated.  That can’t happen unless we clearly anticipated one thing, and something different happened instead.

It’s easiest to create a strong causal chain when the story takes place over a short time period.  If Jane slaps Sarah and, five seconds later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s pretty easy to see the causal connection between these two slaps.  But if Jane slaps Sarah and, five years later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s harder to believe these are connected.  The fact that Sarah is slapping Jane at that particular moment feels random.  Why wouldn’t Sarah have slapped Jane sooner?

Part 2 of Vamp occurs over an extended time period, which makes it difficult to create a strong causal chain.  In part 1, Dave has an awesome sexual experience with Lilith when he’s 16.  It’s so great, it haunts him for years to come.  So why is it that when he’s 20, he decides she’s evil and goes back to the house where they had sex to kill Lilith?  The cause (motivation) for this actions seems weak.  An owl crashing into his windshield prompts thoughts of Lilith and a dream, and that sends Dave on a big research project to learn all about Lilith and then to try to find and kill her.  The first break in the causal chain is the owl.  Why does this owl crash into his windshield?  Why on this day?  It seems manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a causal chain of events.  Then why, after all these years, does an owl prompt the dream?  And why does the dream prompt his decision?  Lilith asserts, in the dream, that Dave wants her more than his girlfriend.  But is that really a reason to embark on a huge research project about Lilith and to kill her?  I don’t think the intensity of their relationship/conflict has built to a point where he would be driven to kill her.  He seems to decide to kill her mainly because his research reveals Lilith is evil.  That seems a very abstract reason to kill someone, especially for Dave, who doesn’t seem to be a demon hunter.  This undercuts our belief in Dave and the plot.  It also seems like this research ought to reveal to him that Lilith isn’t someone who can be killed with a revolver, though this is the weapon Dave brings.

Several years later, Dave’s obsession with Lilith increases.  We’re told it happens because he’s engaged and his father dies, but neither of these causes seems sufficient to cause this effect.  He realizes that none of his sexual partners had matched Lilith.  I think he would know that while the sex is happening and not suddenly realize it years later.  When he’s suddenly obsessed with sex with Lilith and goes so far as to try to conjure her for sex, it’s not convincing.  The story needs a stronger causal chain.

One thing that would help is to condense the timeline so events happen closer together in time.  We also need the effects to be more in line with the causes, so we can believe Dave would do these things and we can believe his character arc over the novel.  If sex with Lilith is the best ever, then I think he’d go back to the house constantly hoping for more.  Perhaps he goes every week for a year, and then every month, and it’s always deserted.  Throughout this time he researches her, and perhaps he finds a number associated with Lilith in legend, and he thinks if he goes that number of times to the house, she will come.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with Elizabeth.  Now he has an internal conflict between his obsession with Lilith and his love for Elizabeth.  He still wants to go back to the house on his usual day of the month.  But perhaps Elizabeth wants to do something with him on that day and he lies and tells her he’s busy.  He can tell that she knows he’s lying, and he’s upset about losing her trust.  When he goes to the house, he’s now angry over Lilith’s hold on him and upset over how he’s treating Elizabeth.  He knows he must make a decision.  So he burns the house down.

But burning the house must have an effect.  Every event should have a cause, and every event should have an effect. So maybe he sets the house on fire, but as he does, he “gather[s] up paper scraps” to add to the flames, and he finds something that increases his obsession rather than putting it to rest.  He could find photos of her naked, or diagrams of a ceremony that might summon her, or an address where she might be.  Thus burning down the house would lead Dave to his next attempt to connect with Lilith.

With a stronger causal chain, Dave’s actions and other story events will be more believable, and we’ll feel more suspense and surprise as one thing leads to the next in ways that keep us on the edge of our seats.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the excerpt with its strong voice and description.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey




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.

[ August 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: M Horst
Submission: MACHISTOPH Ch 1 by Robin Zell
Submitted by: Robin Zell
Reviewer: Allan Dyen-Shapiro
Submission: Blue, Chapter 1 by Walter Williams
Submitted by: Walter Williams

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Post apocalyptic or dystopian stories are a genre staple. We’re all familiar with stories about the harsh struggle to survive, let alone thrive.

But here’s a different character or story twist to think about. What kind of person survives the end of the world? Think about what personality traits a survivor has, what skills, and what might turn a good person into a tyrant.

Now write a story about that character.

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).


On The Shelves

Before She Ignites (Fallen Isles) by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017)

From the New York Times bestselling co-author of My Lady Jane comes a smoldering new fantasy trilogy about a girl condemned for defending dragons and the inner fire that may be her only chance of escape. Mira has always been a symbol of hope for the Fallen Isles, perfect and beautiful—or at least that’s how she’s forced to appear. But when she uncovers a dangerous secret, Mira is betrayed by those closest to her and sentenced to the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles. Except Mira is over being a pawn. Fighting to survive against outer threats and inner demons of mental illness, Mira must find her inner fire and the scorching truth about her own endangered magic—before her very world collapses.

And that’s all before she ignites.

Horizon (Bone Universe) by Fran Wilde (Tor Books, September 2017)

A winged society faces the threat of ultimate extinction in the thrilling finale to Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe fantasy series. A City of living bone towers crumbles to the ground and danger abounds. Kirit Densira has lost everything she loved the most―her mother, her home, and the skies above. Nat Brokenwings―once Kirit’s brother long before the rebellion tore them apart―is still trying to save his family in the face of catastrophe. They will need to band together once more to ensure not just their own survival, but that of their entire community.

The Death Of All Things, including stories by Aliette de Bodard and Fran Wilde ( Zombies Need Brains LLC, September 2017)

Lie. Cheat. Bargain. Fight. Accept. Bribe. Conquer. Evade.No matter what humanity tries, Death always wins. Or does it?

Discover the answer in The Death of All Things, where twenty-two writers take their shot at the Grim Reaper with explorations of the mythical, fantastical, and futuristic bonds between life and death. Learn the cost of mortality, the perils—and joys—of the afterlife, and the potential pitfalls of immortality …












Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Froggy and Willie Chapter 3 by Sue Wachtman

Humor is hard to do. It needs balance, it needs timing. It has to know when to pull out the stops and when to give the reader a breathing space.

I give this writer huge props for aiming at classic kid humor and succeeding, at least for me. A good copyedit and a judicious amount of pruning and tightening will make the prose even better, but the big picture works.

How does it work? By walking the narrow line between over the top and just too much. That’s an art and a gift.

Willie is a hoot. She’s just awful, but she’s so unabashed about it, and so completely cold-hearted, that she’s almost lovable. She has a Plan, dammit, and she’s going to execute that Plan, and that is most emphatically That.

But there’s a hint of change coming. Froggy is her opposite in terms of verbal acuity, self-confidence, and overall moral fiber (or lack thereof). He’s already smoothing her rough edges and making her see herself more clearly, but he does it in a way that doesn’t make me feel as if I’m being preached to. There’s an organic feel to their interactions, and a sense of timing—both comic and  emotional—that makes it work. The way they play off each other is deft and quick; it lingers just long enough to get the point across, and moves just fast enough to keep from bogging down.

If I were to quibble, I’d wonder if Froggy could repeat himself a bit less, and if the conversations between them could be tightened up. He repeats himself, that’s his thing, but just a little less of it would help keep things moving along.

What strikes and charms me overall is the sense of kid logic that runs through the story. Willie’s amorality and utter selfishness is pure kid, but so is her slow awakening to the existence of others in the world—and her very gradual realization that they just might have feelings, too.

I love the way she turns the fairytale trope of the beautiful princess on its head. She’s clearly got the face, but not the voice, and that’s something she’s alerted to in this chapter. She’s also quite willing to make herself ugly if it serves her purpose (and I wonder, though this may be made clear in the previous chapters, whether Granny abets her plan in order to foster the kind of self-awakening that’s happening here). Beauty is a tool for her, but she’s not invested in it. It’s not absolutely essential to her identity. At bottom, with all her considerable flaws, she’s Willie first and foremost. With or without blackberry teeth.

And that’s pure kid, too: eeuuww gross and therefore funny. She breathes licorice at you, she gives you hives. She’s toxic but she embraces it. It’s almost too much, but it stops just short.

And may I salute the pro-frog messaging in a genre that so often defaults to prejudice against frogs (and toads and snakes and spiders). Froggy is very pretty frog, and Willie makes sure to mention it more than once. Again it doesn’t strike me as preaching; it fits the characters and the situation. But it counteracts the propaganda that we’re fed in kidlit and in our culture in general.

One note on genre labeling: It doesn’t feel YA to me, but middle-grade or even chapter book. The clarity of it, the broad strokes of characterization and action, and the overall voice and tone, give me a younger vibe.

I like this a lot, and wish it well as it makes its way out into the world.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Time Is The Fire Chapter 1 by Dylan McFadyen

Here’s a chapter of nice, chewy, detailed science fiction with a space opera vibe and some solid prose. A lot of thought has gone into the background and the worldbuilding, but the characters haven’t been shortchanged. They’re setting up for what should be an interesting mix of interactions and interrelationships.

I don’t get a sense of a murder mystery here so much as a classic, almost Clarkean interstellar conundrum: Who is the mysterious corpse and what is he to the humans in their starship? Less a question of whodunit and more whatisit.

One thing that might help is a clearer pointer in the first chapter to the murder or the murderee—a shift of focus that puts the murder more in the foreground. I also wondered why the chapter has date and location but the prologue doesn’t. Adding the tags would help the reader get the sense of how prologue and chapter relate to one another, even if the relationship isn’t clear for a while.

I find myself wondering if the prologue happens before or after the first chapter. Is the character dead already when the narrative proper begins, or is this the story of how he died? Just a hint would give me a direction to follow as I read.

In terms of of style and execution of the chapter, I had a couple of observations.

1. Worldbuilding to the fore. The profusion of detail tells me how carefully the world has been built, but past a certain point I found it distracting. Is it essential for me as the reader to know exactly how and with which finger Aean backscrolls, and exactly what the mechanism is for doing so?

I did the same thing with my phone just now, minus the hook-in to my cerebral cortex, but I wasn’t thinking about it while I did it. I just did it. Sometimes I do wonder what the exact mechanism is, but when I do that, it’s a thing in itself. It’s not something I’m thinking about while I’m doing research or carrying on a conversation.

There’s a place and a time for reflections on process. When they’re directly relevant to what’s happening in the story—say he uses the usual finger and gets a completely different result, and this causes Issues related to the plot—then as readers we need to know what the process is. But if the story is going somewhere else, then the process isn’t in our need-to-know. It bumps the plot off its rails.

In revision, maybe ask what the reader needs to know. What absolutely can’t be left out? Then layer in a few additional details for enrichment, in places where there’s a pause or a breathing space, or where they’ll sharpen the focus of a character or a scene. With the finger bit, for example, if Aean has a tendency toward hyper-focus, and he zeroes in on what he’s doing, then has to pull back in order to carry on his conversation—that’s character development. Even better if his momentary distraction leads to a revelation later, or a plot-moving event that originates in the movement of a finger.

2. Offstaging. This is my term for key action in a narrative that happens offstage, while the narrative consists of characters talking about the action either before or after it happens. When it’s used sparingly it can be really effective, because you get perspective on what happened or is about to happen. But for the most part, offstaging moves the reader away from the direct experience of the story. Especially when it happens early on, when we’re getting a lot of exposition, the story loses impulsion. It slows and stalls, and we’re separated from it by a filter of people we haven’t yet come to know, and action we can’t participate in.

Here I’d have liked to see some of the situations we’re told about. Maybe direct narration, maybe a concise flashback. Maybe the characters are getting a news feed or an alert, something that gives us a more visceral emotional punch.

While it’s amusing to see Aean in his bathrobe, does it need to take up as much word count as it does? Would the story be stronger if we’re closer to the action? If instead of Singh’s report on the Kyran fleet, what if we get to see it firsthand—or if it’s important to maintain distance from the action, Aean gets to see the raw footage of the Kyran fleet in motion? How much of the details of his orders do we need at this precise point? Can some of them be revealed as the story advances?

In a first chapter especially, the reader needs to be wooed and allured and tempted. She wants to get to know the characters, and she also wants to feel as if she’s a part of the action. That doesn’t mean every story has to start with screaming and explosions. Not at all. But the sooner the reader gets up close to what’s happening, the more likely she is to be caught up in it. And then she’ll stay to find out what happens next.

–Judith Tarr