Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

If All You’ve Known Is Winter by Russell Shannon

I was struck this month by the simplicity of “If All You’ve Known is Winter”: a quiet, clean, troubling story floating on a base of complex and interesting worldbuilding, one with nuanced things to say about the way sex and community and how the hunger for intimacy can shade into and sabotage itself. However, while the way this story uses archetype, distance, and focus could be a tidy comment on the protagonist and his arc, those elements could still achieve more with a little work to make them more controlled. So this month, I’d like to talk about taking a stylistic element from a feature that could still possibly be a bug—and turning it into a tool.

“If All You’ve Known is Winter” has a number of craft aspects running beautifully already. There’s a great use of tactile detail, for starters: it has a real handle on the small physical gestures that show intimacy—and help me feel the nameless protagonist’s yearning for and lack of it.

The thematics are efficiently underlined by the worldbuilding: Rhea’s grey, icy landscape, notably devoid of places to congregate, made up of hard mattresses and dry breakfast biscuits and sterile corporate meetings and rock. It’s a tidy move to set that scene and then introduce Tyrus with a slice of wet, juicy cantaloupe. There’s not much idea work going into Heatscape, but there doesn’t need to be: it’s designed to do the kind of work the story needs to talk about what it’s interested in.

Our narrator is a messy protagonist; the way he can’t actually express what he wants, the way he can’t seem to understand the difference between reciprocal community—what the queer bar on Rhea has—and mutual use, the way he treats Tyrus once the waiter’s risked his own freedom on his account. His suffocating loneliness comes across absolutely clearly, and that yearning to see and be seen—to find other people like him, even if it’s in secret—made him much more compelling for me as a reader. It’s an incredibly core human urge, and the way he brutally screws it up, the way he can’t actually handle it once he’s got it, satisfies even in its disappointment. He’s had to damage someone in order to connect with them truly, damaged as he is. That rings true.

It’s overall a very clean piece, very sharp and muted in its tonal lines, and effective at doing what it’s set out to do.

I do have a few suggestions; more tinkering than major rewrites at this stage. “If All You’ve Known is Winter” does feel at times like it goes on a bit longer than its own plot. I think there’s a possibility of taking a few hundred words out of this piece, just to have it feel more streamlined—most likely in the paragraphs where the protagonist is pacing and crackling about his loneliness, or dithering in small ways.

I also wanted to raise the question of whether the facelessness and namelessness of everyone else in the piece is deliberate: a way of commenting on the protagonist’s issues with intimacy and distance. If not, it might be worthwhile to condense some of the action around his work duties and his boss with a few concrete details: a name, a specific kind of report, etc. It’s the sort of adjustment that would bring those paragraphs more cleanly into focus.

Likewise, some of the details could use stronger consideration: What kind of drink is he getting in the bar? Is there anything more unique and specific than pink curtains and fairy lights, since this character lives in stereotype but the Rhea queer community doesn’t?

This is where the question of whether a stylistic choice is something underthought as of yet or an active storytelling tool comes in for me, as a reader. The mutedness of this protagonist’s viewpoint could be saying something about his relationship to intimacy, to emotional distance. But as a reader I can’t be sure, because I’m not seeing the author demonstrate, in the places that aren’t focusing on the narrator’s personal perceptions and interactions—places like how the bar decorates—that they themselves have the range to execute a vibrant, specific style.

Ultimately, this is the same question as the dry biscuits and juicy cantaloupe: each makes the other mean something thematic in “If All You’ve Known is Winter”. It’s the same with using a deadened or muted descriptive style to tip readers off to a deadened or muted character: it’s much clearer that means something thematic if there’s a counterexample or three, something to signal readers that what we’re doing is deliberate.

So what I’d ultimately suggest for “If All You’ve Known is Winter” is a draft that looks for those opportunities to establish the narrator’s POV—his perspective—more strongly, and does so with a few small touches that underline that the rest of Rhea isn’t quite like him. It’s a small adjustment, but I think a meaningful one: something that’ll bring more life into an already cohesive story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Homestead (Iris) by Kelli Kimble

This novel-universe checks a lot of my boxes. I love ancient Egypt. I outright stan Anubis. And I’ve always been fond of the Stargate franchise. The hint of Southern gothic adds a nice touch of spice.

Since this is an early draft of a first novel, the first thing I’m going to say is one of my standard pieces of advice, which is that there is no wrong way to write a first draft. The time to worry about doing things “right” is later on, in the revision stages. Right now, the story needs to come out in whatever way it’s coming out. Just worry about getting the words on the page.

Once the draft is written, a couple of things might be worth thinking about. One is the time in which the story is set. There are numerous ways to establish that in the narrative—word choice, turns of phrase, characters’ attitudes and world view, references to current events, and so on—and it’s a good idea to apply some of them, but one very simple solution is to label a chapter or a section by date. Then the bits of relevant detail have a clear context.

Another thing that might be worth pondering in revision is the way in which the chapter—and presumably the novel—relays information. In many ways this first chapter serves as a sort of author’s note to self. It sets up some of the backstory and establishes who and what both Mr. Anu and Miss Hond are. It does this primarily through Mr. Anu’s speeches, interspersed with bits of Miss Hond’s internal monologue.

There’s nothing wrong with this at all, in a first draft. The story unfolds in its own way, and the author gets the words down as expeditiously as possible. In revision, I’d suggest opening up the exposition both within quotation marks and outside of them, and finding ways to convey the information in a more immediate fashion.

Mr. Anu’s revelations are enough in themselves to fill up a novel. As a reader I’d like to see how Iris is different, rather than watch Mr. Anu tell her how she is. Maybe we can see her working on the farm, see how she uses her powers to help her perform a task, and give us a sense of how she feels about it. Excited? Guilty? Scared? That might make an interesting opening, especially if it includes some sense of the mystery that surrounds Mr. Anu.

The revelation that she’s not human, and that he’s an ancient god, could build up over a series of scenes or chapters. Keep us wondering, build tension and suspense, give us information in smaller doses. Let us guess, and see if our guesses are right.

Maybe Iris comes in unannounced and catches a glimpse of his true form. Maybe she picks up on some communication between him and his interstellar contacts, or however else the science fiction plays out in the novel. Or maybe she finds something on the farm that isn’t of Earth, that points to Mr. Anu’s origins. Then she would have to make choices about what do, whether and when to tell anyone, and how to use what she’s found.

One thing that might help is to study authors who you think build suspense well, whose works you can’t stop reading—you stay up all night devouring their novels, and can’t wait to find out what happens. Look carefully at your favorite scenes. See how they keep you turning the pages—how they reveal information, what they show onstage and what they keep from you as well. What do they put in, and what do they leave out? What sorts of narrative devices do they use? How do they use dialogue and exposition? How do they develop backstory?

Then maybe try some of these techniques in a scene or scenes of your own. Experiment. See what works for you. Most of all, think about bringing your story alive, letting your characters act and interact and think through as few filters as possible.

Best of luck with this novel, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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 Confluence Of Rivers by Lauren Simon

This chapter has a great deal of potential. It’s solid urban fantasy, with contemporary characters, magical contretemps, and a nice bonus in the relationship between mother and daughter. I love the sugar glider and the intimation that exotic pets are actually magical beings.

The author’s note asks about dialogue, and I paid particular attention to that as I read the chapter, because dialogue is one of those things that almost can’t be taught. You can’t tell students to listen to real-life conversations, because in real life, most of what we say to one another is what I call filler: ritual phrases that don’t really say anything. Hello, goodbye, how are you? Mostly, when we talk, we don’t really say anything. We’re establishing social connections, but we’re not moving our story forward.

In fiction, dialogue is the “good-parts version.” It feels convincing and realistic and immediate, but it keeps the stock phrases to a minimum. Whatever our characters say is directly relevant to the story. We leave out the extraneous bits, but if we do it right, readers will feel as if they’re getting the whole conversation.

It’s not just the words in quotation marks. It’s how the conversation is framed, what the characters do as they speak, how they interact physically and emotionally as well as verbally. That’s what I’d like to look at here.

The dialogue itself mostly does what dialogue in fiction is supposed to do. The narrative around it, in this draft, seems to be trying to figure itself out. There is a great deal of stage business. Each short line of dialogue is surrounded by characters doing things, sometimes several things in a row:

She twisted the gold bangles on her left wrist. “Your father made some bad decisions.” My mother inhaled sharply and let the air out through her teeth. She looked a picture on the wall of the three of us in front of a row of roses.

Exposition brings the narrative to a halt, filling in backstory or explaining the context:

Peanut was a sugar glider: tiny and big-eyed with a striped head and skin stretched between his limbs. I’d found him as a kid. Peanut could levitate and occasionally produced items from the folds of his wings like thimbles, buttons, and coins. I don’t know where they came from, but they weren’t from our house. He was a squidge: part-animal, part-magic, part-demon. On the power scale, squidges were smaller critters, demonics were medium-sized and dangerous, and demons topped them all. My business dealt exclusively with squidges or at least it had until today.

Sometimes both happen at once, as here:

My mother walked into the kitchen, turned on the electric kettle and opened the cupboard. She had a cupboard full of normal and magical remedies—from her time when she worked in a naturopathic shop. It was one of her many jobs she’d worked before Pregúntame, her advice column, had taken off.

Sometimes too there are odd gestures, phrasing that’s a little off true:

“It hurt you,” she guessed and bit her lips, holding them inside her mouth until she spoke again.

This almost reads as if she bit her own lips off and started to swallow them.

Each of these devices interrupts the flow of the dialogue. The characters’ conversation stops, starts, stops again. There’s so much to process that the reader loses track of what the characters are talking about.

In revision I would suggest reducing the stage business to a handful of actions that are directly relevant to what the characters are saying. Cut the eye action—gazing, staring, and so on—to one or two examples. Set up the actions around the tea in a line or two at most, then focus on the dialogue. Cut back the gestures likewise, pick one that’s emblematic of each character and let her do it once, twice at most.

The same applies to exposition. Choose one or two details that sum up the physical setting, and let those contain the rest. Pare away repetition and think carefully about the order in which details appear: make sure they follow logically. When it comes to backstory, think about what the reader absolutely has to know right here and now, and condense that into a sentence or two.

The key to effective dialogue is to keep the focus on the dialogue, and to make sure the framing devices enhance rather than overwhelm it. The tighter and more focused both speech and actions are, the stronger the scene is likely to be.

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wants everyone to know: “Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine purchased my flash story “The Galactic Internet.” It will appear in issue #76 dated September 2019, which should be out within a few weeks. This story was extensively reviewed by the OWW community, and I thanks everyone who helped me make it shine.”

The author of the Editor’s Choice Award winning story  “Ammi’s Broken Vase”, S.Z. Siddiqui,  wants us all to know: “Just wanted to thank the team at OWW again and let you know that this story won Apparition Lit’s monthly flash fiction contest. Thanks for this excellent resource for writers!”

Editor’s Choice Award September 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 Box by Jason Kreth

I’m immediately drawn into “The Box” from the first sentence, which introduces the mysterious box.  That sentence sends me the message that this story will move forward crisply and excite my curiosity.  I get this same message at the beginning of the second scene, when the story reveals that the cows on the farm have begun to die.  That’s a very nice escalation of the situation.  For me, the greatest strengths of the story are this crisp pace, the curiosity it evokes, and the simplicity of the premise, which allows me to start forming theories and expectations from the start.

I think several other areas could be improved.  While the simplicity of the premise contributes to the story’s appeal, that also makes it more likely that I’ll compare this story to others with similar premises.  The object that grants wishes has appeared in many stories.  One of the most famous is the “The Monkey’s Paw.”  Stephen King played off of this story in his novel Pet Sematary.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with using a familiar motif; many great stories do.  The trick is in how you develop it.

“The Box” doesn’t immediately make me think of these works because the object at first seems to cause problems (the dead cows) rather than granting wishes.  So in that section I’m engaged in trying to figure out why and how the box is doing this and how it might be stopped.  If the box caused escalating problems and the attempts to stop it led to more problems, that could be interesting.

But the plot turns away from this.  Once the men explain how the box works and it begins granting wishes, the story falls into a more familiar track.  Still, the price demanded by the box, memories, provides an interesting twist, so I’m interested in seeing how the progressive loss of memories will affect George and how this will lead the plot in a fresh direction.

Unfortunately, the wishes lead right to Regina’s death, similar to the way the wishes in “The Monkey’s Paw” lead to Herbert’s death.  So as I read the story, it is becoming more and more familiar and evoking less curiosity and suspense.  I know that when George gives up his memories of his alcoholism he will return to being an alcoholic.  And I know as soon as Regina dies that George will bring her back.  And I know that doing so will take all his memories.  The final act doesn’t provide me with any significant questions to wonder over or concerns to evoke suspense.

I think there are several ways to develop the plot to avoid this problem.  The story has an interesting triad of characters with George, Regina (his wife), and their friend, the first-person narrator.   Yet they each have their roles, and that really doesn’t change in the story.  George is the protagonist, his actions driving the story.  The narrator observes, and Regina is the victim.  If, for example, George could offer the memories of other people to get the box to grant his wishes, that could be very interesting.  The narrator could be losing memories without realizing it.  Or Regina could.  Another possibility would be to have a romantic relationship building between Regina and the narrator.  One (or both) of them might try to use the box to get rid of George.  They might try planting a camera in George’s office to see how he opens the box.  They might take slips of paper with George’s handwriting and combine them to offer the box a deal that they want.  Another option would be to tell the story from Regina’s point of view.  A story written from the POV of a character killed and then wished back into existence could provide an interesting perspective on the situation.

This connects to another area I think could be strengthened.  The narrator is quite a passive character and his emotions don’t come through strongly for most of the story.  I think the story would be stronger if the narrator was not just a chronicler and had stronger goals of his own.  This could give him a stronger attitude about everything George does.  George’s actions would either help the narrator in his own goals or hinder him, and that would put more at stake for the narrator and generate stronger emotions in him.  It would also create another layer of conflict and suspense in the story, which could make it more emotional, intense, and unpredictable.  When the narrator doesn’t seem to have any goals and doesn’t seem to really care much about what George does (until near the end), that makes me less involved too.  The narrator seems to know that George will revert to alcoholism before George gives up those memories, yet the narrator offers no warning to George and doesn’t try to stop him.  If the narrator is really George’s friend, I think he would care more.  If the narrator wants Regina for himself, then he might encourage George to give up his alcoholic memories, knowing the marriage would be ruined.  Either way, I’d be more involved.

I’ll cover the last two areas quickly.  First, some of the dialogue is weak.  When Regina brings coffee to George and the narrator, they both thank her.  You could show more about their relationships if they said something more personal.  There’s a fair amount of pretty standard dialogue throughout; characters nodding and saying “Yeah” or “Sure”; characters shrugging and saying “I don’t know.”  If the character is going to nod or shrug, he doesn’t need to also say “Yeah” or “I don’t know.”  Here’s an example involving the narrator:

“I shrugged.  ‘I don’t know, George, but that sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

This could be rewritten,

“I shrugged.  ‘It sounds a hell of a lot more believable than a magic, wish-granting box.'”

Finally, the story has four acts, which means it feels kind of unwieldy and long.  One act or three acts usually work best.  A four-act structure rarely works well.  The first act, in which George is trying to figure out what the box is, lasts about one page.  The second act, in which George is trying to save his cows, lasts about a page and a half.  The third act, in which George is using the box to grant his wishes, lasts about four pages.  The fourth act, in which George is trying to bring Regina back, is about two pages.  The proportions aren’t working well, since we instinctively expect Act 2 to be the longest and Act 3 to be short and final.  If you cut the section in which the cows are dying, which really has no impact on the rest of the story, you could develop this into a stronger three-act structure.

I hope this is helpful.  I was carried right along through the story and really enjoyed the curiosity it evoked.

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

 

Writing Challenge/Prompt

You almost never dream, at least not dreams you remember. That all changes on your forty-fifth birthday. Suddenly, your nights are full of vivid dreams, dreams that exhaust you and dreams that frighten you. The worst part is you suspect all your dreams are coming true.

Put a character in that scenario and write a story about what they do.

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).

Publication News

Walter Williams wants us to know: “My short story, The InfoCoup is coming out in the fall edition of Abyss and Apex magazine, AND That same story has been chosen to be part of the anthology The Best of Abyss and Apex, Volume 3.  This will be available for purchase in December.

While the short story itself wasn’t workshopped on the OWW, it is an
excerpt from a novel that I partially workshopped on OWW.  The very first
draft of the one chapter actually was chosen as the editor’s choice in ages
past.  (I’m willing to guess 2005 or 2006)”

Congratulations, Walter!

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Inflexible (Part 1 of 2) by James Victor

“Inflexible” caught my attention this month with its meditative narrative voice; its deeply-considered, half-familiar, half-odd, vivid worldbuilding; and the way it handles funny and horrible and mournful events together, and draws them all to a satisfying conclusion. And it achieves that effect using small cues—facts, established understandings, and details—that all start in the very first scene. So this month, I’d like to talk about developing small things into larger ones to create a sense of unity in our work.

“Inflexible” is set in a richly developed world: one that feels like one of the less-utilized corners of Renaissance Europe. There are just enough standard tropes present here—vampires, executioners—to solidly establish place and genre, but the way they’re handled feels fresh, vivid, and alive. There’s a sense, reading this piece, that there’s been first-principles thought given to how those tropes might really work—and that focus on logistics and social dynamics creates a concretness in the setting that makes it feel real and relevant.

The second element in play in “Inflexible” is the narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is an excellent observer, balancing his relative silence and lack of general agency by offering up a steady flow of details: Ganoes’s anxious tapping fingers, the little clue of how Harrad rebuffs Ganoes’s intimacy by placing his sword on his knee.

Those little details add to the feeling of immersion and credibility in “Inflexible”, but they also each serve as tiny seeds for larger issues that will show up in the story—and that’s where this piece really starts to work well for me: foreshadowing.

The first scene of “Inflexible” is rife with details or comments that each grow into larger—pivotal—narrative concerns later on. Ganoes’s anxiety is a great clue, in hindsight, that he was anxiously up to something unusual—personal—with this commission, and that turns out to be the motive that brings Harrad down. The rules prohibiting Harrad from resting his greatsword in any comfortable way discreetly prefigures the story’s entire conflict, where there is no way Harrad’s duties let him carry his office without getting seriously hurt. The narrator’s uncertainty about whether to act or hang back is a establishes him as a character who can’t yet parse the swirling social context around him well enough to exercise good judgment, and it’s a tiny microcosm of his absolutely fatal error in letting the almoner have his guest.

What foreshadowing does in a piece of fiction is prime the reader’s expectations: it’s a little piece of information about a character or a situation that’s offered in order to make the later reveal feel more inevitable, more satisfying, more right, and all of those little hints are deployed very effectively. When the larger, more serious incidents establish major plot points, none of them feel abrupt, unreasonable, or out of nowhere. Nothing that happens feels out of line with these characters’ personalities and tendencies, because as a reader, the story’s already alerted me that these are things those characters would do. An emotional arc is being resolved, not opened, and so every turn in “Inflexible”—set up as they are—feels incredibly satisfying.

That smooth machining of plot elements makes every development emerge smoothly from the last, and the inevitable tragic ending feel right, because it’s couched in all kinds of hindsight. In retrospect, as a reader, I can see exactly which traps, miscues, and inevitabilities made this fall together.

The other element that makes “Inflexible” work for me is the tone. I feel like it’s not exceptionally common to read a story with this kind of material that takes the perspective and tone this one does. While the execution itself is incredibly grisly, it’s described with a quiet, sad, almost bitter compassion that takes the sting out of what’s being depicted; I never felt as if “Inflexible” was aiming to shock, or to hurt.

Overall, this is a very strong piece that doesn’t twig a great many suggestions for me. I would consider, if word count is a factor, trimming the conversation about women in prison, the guard, and sexual assault considerably; it’s one of the few elements in this piece that doesn’t pay off in any way later, and what it gains in character development—who the guard thinks the narrator is, and establishing for readers how that’s untrue—might not be enough to merit the space it’s taking up.

To answer the questions in the author notes: Yes, I think it very much works, and best of luck finding this piece a home!

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

On The Shelves

 Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Alliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press, September, 2019) 

A major first collection from a writer fast becoming one of the stars of the genre… Aliette de Bodard, multiple award winner and author of The Tea Master and the Detective, now brings readers fourteen dazzling tales that showcase the richly textured worldbuilding and beloved characters that have brought her so much acclaim. Come discover the breadth and endless invention of her universes, ranging from a dark Gothic Paris devastated by a magical war; to the multiple award-winning Xuya, a far-future space opera inspired by Vietnamese culture.

When She Reigns (Fallen Isles) by Jodi Meadows (Katherine Tegan Books September, 2019) 

The First Dragon– The Great Abandonment has begun. Panic has seized the Fallen Isles, where no one knows which god will rise next. Mira Minkoba believes her dreams hold the secret to bringing an end to the destruction, but in order to save her people, she’ll have to find a legendary treasure: the bones of the first dragon.

The Last Hope– Mira’s desperate search leads the Hopebearer and her friends on a dangerous journey into the heart of enemy territory: the Algotti Empire itself. The empress is more than willing to help—for an impossible price. And as tensions escalate beneath the shadows of the risen gods, Mira grapples with a terrifying question: What will she have to sacrifice to preserve what she loves? The explosive finale to Jodi Meadows’s Fallen Isles trilogy is ablaze with sizzling romance and fiery magic as Mira’s fight to save dragons from extinction evolves into a mission to save her world from annihilation.

Brightfall by Jaime Lee Moyer (Jo Fletcher Books, September 2019)

Someone is murdering the Merry Men . . .

It’s been a mostly quiet life since Robin Hood put aside his pregnant wife Marian, turned his back on his Merry Men and his former life and retreated to a monastery to repent his sins . . . although no one knows what was so heinous he would leave behind Sherwood Forest and those he loved most. But when friends from their outlaw days start dying, Father Tuck, now the Abbott of St Mary’s, suspects a curse and begs Marian to use her magic to break it. A grieving Marian must bargain for protection for her children before she sets out with a soldier who’s lost his faith, a trickster Fey lord, and a sullen Robin Hood, angry at being drawn back into the real world. It’s not long before Marian finds herself enmeshed in a maze of secrets and betrayals, tangled relationships and a vicious struggle for the Fey throne.

And if she can’t find and stop the spell-caster, no protection in Sherwood Forest will be enough to save her children.

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

BIONIC MAGIC (CH 1: THE HATCHING) by Lizzie Web

Science fantasy is an interesting genre. On the one hand it’s science fiction—humans in space for example, exploring strange new worlds. On the other, it has magic, and often magical beings. When it works, it’s a glorious crossover.

This chapter has some promising elements. Energy creatures in the form of mythical beasts, a protagonist with magical healing powers, and humans as adversaries, experimenting with alien species. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of story to set up.

One thing I would suggest for this opening chapter is to shift the focus a little bit, to establish key elements of the worldbuilding up front and to tighten up the action and the characters’ interactions. The opening paragraphs tell us about the urgency Corva feels, and show some of the scenery through which she is racing and some of the creatures that populate it, as well as establishing some of the elements of the magical system. The effect is rather confusing, because there are so many details, but those details don’t completely clarify where we are or why Corva is so desperate to get to Moonelsa.

One alternative would be to skip past the tour and go straight to the nest. The details that I as a reader want to know are the ones that establish genre, location, and a broad sense of what’s going on. I’d like to be clear that we’re on an alien planet, which could be as simple as naming it. The orange sun is a good hint, but I need more; I’m distracted by what seems like earth-style mythical fauna, and would have thought we were in Faerie if I hadn’t had the author’s note on the genre. I think we need to know about the human invaders early on, and to be clearer about what they did to Moonelsa.

Corva’s flight is only really relevant if something happens that affects the plot. Somebody tries to stop her from helping the dragon, or she stumbles across somebody or something who will play a part in the story later—a human drone or scout, maybe. Otherwise, the focus of the chapter is the hatching, and Corva’s arrival there and what happens after that. That’s where the story begins.

The chapter does one thing absolutely right: it ends in such a way that I had to check out Chapter 2 to find out what happened. Good going! And helpful for me because the author’s note there told me about the alien planet and cleared up some questions I had about the humans. I would have liked to have that information in the first chapter.

The author’s note for Chapter 1 asks about characterization. Here I’m going to start with my usual advice in workshopping drafts: Don’t worry about the finer points of the prose until the draft is done. Let the words come in any way that works. Revision is the time for pruning and polish.

So, if the novel is still in progress, set the comments below aside. Save them for later, when it’s time to get down to the word and sentence level.

Characterization has a lot of layers. How characters act, think, and feel, the choices they make, their mistakes, their motivations, are all part of the process. But the foundation of it all is the words, the choices the author makes, the way characters are described, how they talk, what they do—and especially what kinds of things they do or say over and over.

There’s a lot of repetition in this draft, and certain words and concepts repeat over and over. I particularly noticed the variations on shaking, shuddering, and trembling. These words were what I call frequent-flier words. It’s a good idea to run a global search on these, and think about which can be changed into other words and concepts, and which can be disposed of altogether.

The impression I got as I read was that the characters’ shuddering and shaking (and stammering also, which is a form of verbal shakiness) was meant to convey fear and anxiety. Clearly it’s a terrible situation, but it’s not completely clear in the draft how terrible it is, or why both Corva and Moonelsa are so visibly upset. By the end I had a better sense of what was going on, but I would have liked to know a bit more a bit earlier: what happened to Moonelsa and why this hatching is so different from all other hatchings.

Another aspect of this is the way Moonelsa is described as a very powerful being. Corva is in awe of her, and we’re told that Corva’s powers are nowhere near as strong. But Moonelsa herself is so shaky and trembly and timid, so generally ineffectual, that there’s a disconnect between what we’re told about her and what we see.

This is a great opportunity for strengthening the characterization. This mighty magical being has been reduced to a quivering wreck, cut off from her people and denied their support and their rituals. If this is made clearer, and we get more of a sense of how Corva feels about it (and how Moonelsa has changed from what she was before the humans captured her), the scene will be that much stronger. We can see what an appalling thing has been done to Moonelsa, and we’ll understand better how and why Corva is the only person who will (or can?) help her.

Best of luck with this novel. The concept intrigues me and the characters and situations have a lot of potential. I really want to know what happens next, and how Corva is going to deal with the humans who have invaded her world and violated one of its most powerful magical beings.

–Judith Tarr