Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Brought Near To Beast by Gregor Hartmann

My interest was piqued by “Brought Near to Beast” this month because of its smooth take on a set of classic centre-of-genre tropes—near-alien overclasses, dinosaurs, a researcher protagonist—one which brings a seeping political consciousness into play. However, the connections between those ideas felt, to this reader, frequently a little jerky; they didn’t always add up. So this month, I’d like to talk about continuity—how the elements of our stories connect—and what we communicate with the absences in our narratives.

“Brought Near to Beast” is a fun read: reasonably light and quick, well-focused, and with enough sense of a wider world and wider issues to feel substantial. Its clear, tidy prose foregrounds the story well, and sparks here and there with a few bright, vivid metaphors—I liked “short sullen grass” especially. The question of Suu’s real motives builds a legitimately frightening threat to combat and a sense of the overall stakes involved, and alongside Peng’s slow realization of what he might be enabling, it’s compelling enough to drive the piece.

What I’d suggest for “Brought Near to Beast”, though, is largely about connections: giving some stronger thought to how the various ideas in this story interact with and feed one another—or where they don’t.

The major issue I had with the piece was the rather short half-life of its ideas: a motivation—like the potential culling of Sapiens on the horizon—appears to drive the action of one particular scene, but after that? It near-disappears into another motivation, and isn’t picked back up. Even with Peng’s me-first attitude, there isn’t a flicker of that consideration in play when the assassination attempt goes down, and those disconnections dent the realism of Peng’s psychology and the world in general.

Likewise, the question of Peng’s relationship with the mammoths doesn’t surface between the first page and the last, and by then, it feels rather tangential. What readers have been told is important here, told is the driving issue for Peng and Bataar, has moved sufficiently by the last paragraphs that I’m unsure the ending—while basically heartwarming—still actually addresses the problem the story has set. Peng’s final choice—to stay with Bataar and build a better rapport with the herd—feels abrupt and, given how strongly his ambitions for a different, networked life have been built up just paragraphs before, somewhat counterintuitive.

That sense of disconnect shows up in the characterization as well. Peng’s ineffectual tendencies and little jealousies don’t always mesh with his claimed ambitions: he wants to cozy up to a ChoRen for professional advancement, but all he knows about his networking targets seems to come from TV shows and propaganda—and he’s ignoring a lot of the social cues Suu and the other ChoRen are throwing his way instead of using them. It’s pretty plain he’s not going to achieve his goal, even if he takes credit for saving Suu; Suu uses people as props. He has not conducted himself like someone who would care enough to issue Peng the kind of reward he’s fishing for.

In short, what I’m noticing here are absences: missing reactions, missing connections, and missing facts which, through the holes they leave, reshape the narrative in ways I’m not sure are precisely intended.

What we put on the page or imply conveys information to readers, but our absences convey information too. Readers infer deliberation out of what’s not happened, not mentioned, and how it juxtaposes with what was and has. Here, those collisions are conveying that Peng is a bad scientist, without potentially meaning to say that thing; they’re conveying that he’s somewhat sociopathic, given the casualness with which he takes learning that Bataar’s a murderer (I mean, doesn’t everyone who kills someone think they deserved it on some level?) and his absolute lack of regard for every other Sap in the world. Peng is missing his society—family, friends, associates, people to care about who aren’t Bataar—but readers fill in that he would have one, and by disregarding it, by throwing it under the bus, Peng’s simply an incredibly ethically and emotionally broken person, insecure and a bit of a fool.

There are a few strategies for finding what conclusions the absences in our narratives are feeding—for making sure the signal we’re conveying is as clean as possible. This is one of the places where critiques are possibly one’s first line of defense; there’s not much substitute for seeing how a character’s reading to other sets of eyes. But to help ensure the blanks we leave are pointing the ways we want them, it’s worthwhile to read a drafted piece with attention to just one character arc: make notes on everything that’s said about that person and deliberately reconstruct the footprint they’re leaving.

From the other side, if we can establish a cohesive idea of what each character wants and how each line they speak, silence they extend, or action they take links back to that core idea, we can clear the noise or contradiction out of that character’s expression.

This is careful and somewhat grinding work, but it’s worthwhile to make sure we’re communicating signal, not noise. That importance struck me while wondering why Suu and the other ChoRen’s dialogue is so choppy. The overclock explanation comes a bit late, and from a linguistic standpoint—dependent on how the SophX implants are supposed to work—either he’s going to think in complete sentences anyway, or in a more abstract form that wouldn’t necessitate dropping particles in his audible speech. Particle drop is a syntactic translation question or a marker of linguistic play, not one of resource management.

The impression I was left with was that Suu’s speech patterns have ended up quite close to the stereotype of an Asian person speaking broken English, in a story where Chinese sociopolitical concepts are centred, where the characters are Asian and Mongolian—and the protagonist is insecure, social-climbing, bootlicking, and jealous.

A picture is eventually painted. A conclusion’s being led to by those narrative facts.

We’ve talked a lot in previous months about making sure your choices are choices, not accidents, and that’s a reference that’s going to be inevitably read as an authorial choice on how to depict others. Just as Peng’s shortcuts are communicating—and it’s up to us as writers to know what’s being communicated—the characterization choices in “Brought Near to Beast” are too, and I’d suggest they’re worth reexamining.

Best of luck with the piece!

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


Editor’s Choice Award July 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Poison Wind-Chapter 1 by J. Kyle Kelsey

I’m going to start this Editor’s Choice with a piece of somewhat wicked advice.

You’re in one of the best of all the writing stages: the Thinking Up All Kinds of Cool Stuff stage. It’s wonderful. It’s a blast. Whatever you come up with is great. It’s pure fun.

Don’t stop.

The time to revise is later. Just let the cool stuff flow. Don’t worry about rules or continuity or anything else. This is first draft. The only rule is to do whatever gets the words down on that page. You can worry about all the other stuff later.

Radical, right? But the actual worst thing you can do to a draft that’s humming along is try to apply your editorial brain. If you get stuck or if you really feel it’s stopped making sense, by all means regroup. Run a rules check. Do some rethinking, even rewriting.

But not until then.

Now that I hope I’ve made that clear, here are some thoughts and questions. Don’t act on them now unless they help move the draft forward. Put them aside, save them for the revision stage. Most likely the specific words I’m citing will have changed, but the general point should still apply.

The first thing to think about in revision is the structure of the story, the way the scenes follow one another, the pacing. Does the story move forward consistently? Do the slow parts come when we need a breather? Do the fast parts zoom along? Does every scene absolutely need to be there? Is there anything missing?

Obviously there’s no way to be sure of any of this with just a short chapter to go by, but these are the sorts of questions to ask when it’s time to revise. There are a couple of indicators in the opening chapter, some tricks of technique that may need rethinking. One is a tendency to say the same thing over and over in slightly different ways.

Repetition is a well-known rhetorical device, but like all such devices, a little goes a long way. This paragraph, for example.

It wasn’t a sacred day, or a fasting day, or even a bank holiday. It was a boring November day. He sat is in his dull flat in dreary East Ham. The weather wasn’t of note. Clouds covering everything in gray monotony, like Ajeet’s unwashed clothes blanketed the floor of their shared flat. It seemed like the right day. He remembered that from an American movie, “fire them on Friday”, something like that. He was dying to break the tedium. His crew wouldn’t activate for another two days. He could stream his shows, but it all seemed boring now. Nothing compared to fighting evil with his crew.

On the one hand, the repetition of day has a nice ring to it, kind of Dickensian. It sets a tone. On the other, as the paragraph lengthens, the effect starts to weaken. The progression of thoughts is a bit jumbled. Ideas pop in and then out and then back again.

That is fine in a first draft. Get it all down, get the chapter out the door. But in revision, it’s time to line up the ideas and images and get them moving clearly and coherently, in logical order. If ideas or images repeat, pick the one that works best in context. Save the others for another occasion.

Revision is the time to make sure all the words work the way they’re intended to. Sometimes when we’re writing in the white heat of first draft, we can get ourselves tangled up. We know what we mean, but readers may not.

This is particularly true in science fiction. Some terms are unique to the genre. Some are invented on the spot, or reinvented to fit the world of the story. A passage like this one

Didn’t hurt that they made a good living off scavenging bit wreckage after his crew would detonate data cores. In two days they would onramp a massive code injection.

makes sense to the characters, but especially at the very beginning, it may need some clarification for the reader. It doesn’t need to be a big chunk of exposition, but it might help to think about how to make these concepts clearer. A quick phrase to help clarify and/or explain. Or maybe opening up the sentences, adding a little more, letting the reader see what the terms mean.

Figurative language is a nice way to make a scene or an idea pop, but watch that, too. It needs to be straight on point; to be exactly right. Otherwise it can push the reader out of the moment.

The traditions of his parents and grandparents faith ran through their hearts as deep as ravines

is trying hard to convey the depth of his family’s faith, but ravines might not be quite the right word. As a reader in the US, I see a ravine as a kind of moderate slash in the landscape, deeper and larger than a gully but not quite as spectacular as a canyon. It’s not terribly impressive on a global scale, and I’m not sure about associating it with religious faith.

What other image might resonate here? Something a reader might recognize from a religious text? An image of a sacred place? What about tying it in with the anatomical and psychological aspects of the human heart?

Or, for that matter, just letting the idea shine through on its own. Similes and metaphors can enhance the story, but they can also get in the way. Sometimes it’s more effective to just state the idea plainly, without embellishment.

The question to ask here is, “Am I interrupting the flow? Did I just distract the reader? Did I bump her out of the story?”

This applies to the prose in general as well as to rhetorical flourishes. Make sure all the words are the right words. As Mark Twain famously said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

Here are a couple of examples of words or phrases that might bear some rethinking:

 “Alright. I’ll be there,” he acted in a hurry.

I’m not sure what “acted” means here. It’s not a “said” word. Is he pretending? Acting in the theatrical sense?

The music she liked was chaotic and atmospheric. A reflection of herself in his eyes.

The second sentence is a bit confusing. Is she reflecting herself? Is he seeing her reflected? What does it mean? Can you phrase it more clearly and concisely?

And finally, be particularly careful about pronouns. There’s a tendency to use “he” as a shorthand for the viewpoint character, which gets confusing when he’s interacting with another male character. The reader has to stop and disentangle the pronouns, and try to figure out which he is which. Sometimes it’s best to just name them. My personal rule is to signal a change with the character’s name (or more rarely, some other indicator—the character’s rank or relationship; but I try to be really sparing with that), then “he” is that character until I change the name. No name, no change.

Basically, in revision, look out for anything that makes the reader stop and go, “Whut?” The goal is to keep the story moving, and to keep the reader well and thoroughly engaged. If she does stop to notice what you’re doing, it should be brief and it should be carefully calibrated. Every word earns it keep, and every image is exactly the right one for that particular point in the story.

But again, in the first draft, don’t worry about any of this. Just write. And have fun. That’s what it’s all about.

–Judith Tarr

Member News Of Note

Finalists for the 2019 World Fantasy Award were announced today, and OWW continues to produce some of the best writers and editors in the field. Among the finalists are:

Best Novel: C.L. Polk Witchmark 

Best Novella: Alliette de Bodard The Tea Master and the Detective

Best Collection: Amanda Downum Still So Strange

Best Collection: N.K. Jemisin How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Special Award, Professional: C. C. Finlay, for F&SF editing

Congratulations to all of you!


Editor’s Choice Award

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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The 10,000 Year Civil War by Christopher Halk

There’s a tremendous lot of story-stuff going on in this submission. It’s very ambitious, and it has some interesting bits of worldbuilding—the Shades and their colors in particular.

What drew me to select the chapter as an Editor’s Choice was the author’s note about viewpoint. Point of view is one of the most important elements of any work of fiction. Who is telling the story? How are they telling it? Where are they standing, what are they feeling, how are they reacting, how are they interacting with other characters?

Sometimes authors get tangled up in the received wisdom about viewpoint.

Only one point of view per paragraph/scene/chapter.

Never change point of view in a sentence/paragraph/scene.

“Head-hopping” is Bad, Do Not Do.

Always be clear about your viewpoint—tag frequently with words like thought, wondered, and the many variations of looked and saw.

The thing about the rules of writing is that they’re really the Pirates’ Code. Just…guidelines. They exist as guides for writers who are learning their craft. If you follow the rules, you stand a slightly better chance of writing clearly and avoiding confusion.

But—and this is a really big BUT—if you know and understand why the rules exist and what sorts of problems they’re intended to prevent, you can break them. You can have two different viewpoints in the same sentence, you can write an entire scene without ever once having your character look or think or wonder, you can challenge the reader to figure out what you really mean without spelling it out.

If you know what you’re doing. And if you have the skill and craft to pull it off.

And that’s why writing is hard.

The chapter we have here is struggling with the concept of point of view. Part of what’s going on is a tendency to lose focus from sentence to sentence. Paragraphs are packed full of narrative detail, chunks of exposition and large amounts of action crammed into a small space. The line of the story tends to get lost.

Breaking up the action will help, as will cutting way down on the repetition of words and phrases. Pick one key action per paragraph, and one key detail from the background, and see if that helps open up the narrative. It may also make it easier to figure out which character is most effectively positioned to tell that part of the story.

It doesn’t have to be one single character. There are valid narrative reasons to have several viewpoints—Alexander, his wife, the page. Even a demon, for extra points, though again, that requires careful attention to detail. Different “camera angles” provide different insights into what’s going on, and allow us to see different parts of the action.

I think one of the problems here is the tendency to fix on the “view” part of viewpoint. The word “look” is a frequent flier, as are a number of its synonyms, with the occasional variation of “thought” or “wondered.” Note how often these words appear, and think about whether it’s really important to the story, right there and then, for the characters to be doing this particular thing. How else can the reader get a sense of what’s going on? In what other ways can the viewpoint character show that he or she is the one who’s telling us the story?

Think about what he or she can see from where they’re standing. How do they feel about it? What particular words might they use, that tell us who they are and how they relate to the other characters? What other things can they do besides look or watch or see? Do we need to be told they’re doing this, or can we just see what they see?

For the time being I think the “one viewpoint per paragraph” rule might be worth following, to keep things simple. There’s a lot of work to do on focus, on cramming fewer events and details into each paragraph, and on writing action scenes with active words and phrases. Emotions need work as well—more direct experience and less passive voice; make sure to show how the character feels from the inside, rather than telling us that the emotion is felt. The arc of emotion should be smoother, with each action at the right level of intensity.

This is a good example of what tends to happen in the draft:

They screamed in agony, shake their heads in disbelief, and then acquiesce to extinction.

There’s the high note of the agonized scream, dropping steeply down to the headshake, then the passive polysyllables of acquiesce to extinction (with bonus slippage of verb tense). If each phrase has the same general level of diction, the whole becomes much stronger. Something like: “They screamed in agony, tossed their heads in disbelief, then yielded to death.” Not my finest attempt at prose, there, but notice how the words fit together. They’re all short, clear, straightforward, and they take their inspiration from the tone and diction of the opening phrase.

Once the prose is more tightly focused, it may be easier to see how viewpoint works. It’s not the explicit statement that does it—he looked, she watched, they saw—but the way it’s said. The angle from which the character sees each event. The words that show how the character feels about it.

Different words convey different emotions. “She danced” and “she capered” describe approximately the same movement, but the first conveys grace and joy whereas the second has more of a comical aspect. When a character is observing another character, how they relate to that character can tell us a lot: “Her beloved sprang through the gate with sword in hand” versus “the monster lurched into the courtyard with fangs bared.” We don’t need to be told “She looked at him” if it’s clear she’s our viewpoint; we just need to know what he does, as she sees it.

It’s all about trust: trusting one’s craft and trusting one’s reader. Learning how to use just the right words to convey just the right details. Keeping track of who a character is, how they think and feel, and what they can see (and hear and smell and taste) from where they’re standing (or sitting or lying). Living inside the character’s head, experiencing the story as they experience it, and then conveying that experience in a few carefully chosen, precisely appropriate words and phrases.

That’s what viewpoint is. Not just camera angle but the whole spectrum of emotion, action, perception, as experienced by a particular character.

It’s quite possible to shift from one character to another, and if the writer is skillful enough, that shift can be clear from the way the angle changes. A different choice of words, a new take on what’s happening. A sense that this is inevitable; that we have to change viewpoints in order get the most out of this particular part of the story.

In sum, and in general, I’d suggest trying to do more with less in this chapter. Pare down the action, focus on fewer details, and move away from passive voice to more active constructions. Removing the iterations of look will help, as will thinking in a more focused way about how the characters are perceiving what’s happening around and to them. That will make the story stronger and let the reader live it along with the characters.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Tomorrow’s Place by Jim McDougall

I like the concept of this story. Magical artifacts are always fun, and when they come from mysterious junk shops, that’s even better. I also appreciate the punch line. “Dead right,” indeed.

I have a couple of suggestions for the next round of revisions.

First, the character arc could be smoother and more consistent. The story opens with Lucy as the skeptic, bored and out of sorts and referring to the contents of the shop as “garbage.” It’s Jack who’s the believer.

After this beginning, the reader expects Lucy to keep on being a hard sell. But as soon as Jack buys the radio, suddenly she’s fine with listening to it. We need to see how she gets to this point. For example, when she agrees with Jack, she might be less willing; she may say “Sure,” but without enthusiasm. She’s just saying it to maintain family harmony.

There’s another abrupt shift once Jack turns the radio on. She immediately realizes what it’s doing, and suddenly she’s wildly enthusiastic about it. Now it’s Jack who’s the skeptic, and he’s both rude and insulting—until the station starts playing the disaster at the factory. Then he’s the believer again, so much so that he insists on physically investigating; and now it’s Lucy who’s the skeptic again, so much so that she stomps off and leaves him to it.

In revision I’d suggest some careful rethinking of the characters’ reactions and their interactions. Make sure the shifts from skeptic to believer and vice versa progress logically. Make it a little clearer in the beginning that in spite of Lucy’s tiredness and her lack of patience with Jack’s fascination with old junk, she’s the imaginative one.

Maybe he makes it clear that he’s just looking for a cheap radio, and she makes a joke about “If it’s that old, it must be magic.” Then when she’s proved right, Jack’s nastiness makes more sense. Jack doesn’t like to be wrong.

Likewise, when Jack shifts toward acceptance of the truth, give it a little more space. Show how he comes around to it. Does he think to apologize to Lucy for doubting her? If he doesn’t, would Lucy call him on it? Or does she stay on the moral high ground?

None of this needs to take up a lot of story space. The right line or two in the right place will do it.

The other suggestion I would make is to rethink the structure of the ending. The shift of scene from Lucy abandoning Jack to Lucy dreaming about the factory’s collapse is confusing on two fronts. First, it’s not clear that it’s a dream, until we’re told in so many words.

Second, would Lucy really do that? She’s the one who believes wholeheartedly in the radio’s predictive powers. If it’s broadcasting a disaster, does it make sense for her to go away and leave Jack? If she really is that pissed off at his general assholery, wouldn’t she get all or partway home and then turn back because he might be in danger? Would she leave him like that, ignore his absence, and go calmly to sleep, considering what the radio predicted?

Much of the dream sequence would work if she were stomping along in a temper rather than lying in bed asleep. She could hallucinate the walls falling, and hear Jack’s voice—then turn and run back, praying she isn’t too late.

That would close the gap of several hours between her dumping Jack and her waking up from the dream. Where is Jack during those hours? Why didn’t he just make the call and then come home? Would he stay around the factory if he knows it’s going to come down?

There’s also the question of how long the interval is between the radio’s prediction and the event it predicts. The baseball game happens 24 hours later. The factory seems to collapse much sooner. Is there any particular logic in play here? If so, how do Jack and Lucy figure it out?

One final note: Think about the emotional temperature of the ending. Make sure it’s high enough. “It was time to look for Jack” needs to be stronger, more urgent, less passive. Let us feel the tension. Lucy’s “flash of cold understanding and hot grief” is lovely—that’s what we want to feel in the whole scene. Then the punch line truly is a blow to our emotional center.

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Gregor Hartmann has some great news: ““Heaven Looks Down on the Tomb,” which was critiqued here in 2014, appears in the July-August issue of Interzone. I’d like to thank Karl Bunker, Mike Canice, Allan Dyen-Shapiro, Robert Graves, Clint Spivey, and Katie Sweet for their comments.”

Congratulations, Gregor!

Writing Challenge/Prompt

The changes you see in the place where you live are gradual, and at first, you’re not certain those changes are real. Animals, birds, insects, even plants, look and act differently, grow faster and larger. At times you think they’re watching you and your neighbors. At times you think they’re planning something.What you don’t understand is how, or why.

Put a character in the middle of this scenario and write a story.

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).

Grapevine/Market News

Third Flatiron is open for submissions to their themed anthology Longevity from July 10- August 3, 2019. They are looking for stories between 1,500 and 3,000 words long, and pay rate is 8 cents a word. Full guidelines are here.

Miscreations is open to submissions and will close again August 31, 2019. They are looking for horror stories of between 2,000 and 5,000 words, and payment is 5 cents per word. You can find full guidelines here.

Deep Magic is now open for submissions and will close again on September 30, 2019. Payment is 6 cents per word  and payment is capped at 10,000 words. They also buy reprints at 2 cents per word. Full guidelines are here.


Editor’s Choice Award July 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Snake Head by C.K. Attner

“Snake Head” drew me in this month with its examination of violence and what makes strength in an eerie, evocative, brutal little world. It draws a swift, sympathetic picture through implication, but doesn’t quite resolve in the final paragraphs—and the author’s notes aren’t sure about where to take the story next. So this month, I’d like to discuss building our capacity to figure out why a piece isn’t quite landing right: one way to diagnose which direction to move with a draft where it’s unclear what isn’t working.

The standout feature of “Snake Head” is definitely the atmosphere: Huey’s narrative arc isn’t precisely a new one, but the tiny universe he’s trying to escape drips and molders and curls around the edges, bolstered by the persistent use of physical, bodily metaphors: water that “smells like armpit”, the sun biting down. The snakeskin peeling like sunburn is palpable in my fingertips. “Muscles cocked” is just up to the line of potentially overdone, but in context, it really works: a body like a weapon. The effect is that the entire seaside world of “Snake Head” feels like a human body: humid and vulnerable, breakable down to parts, a site for hurt.

That reinforces the slow accretion of details and incidents that build up to the choice Huey makes—and fails. There’s a sense in which the quiet of this story both underscores and balances out, at the same time, its brutality. Taken together, Able’s winced-away-from sexual coercion, Uncle Pete’s violent wolverine stories, and parents who keep having children just because slaves are too much trouble—because slaves fight back—paint a horrifying picture. But the way that information is dripped out even over a rather short piece, the emotional quiet with which Huey conveys it, help keep that brutality from being a full-on slap into readers’ faces (or at least, it did for this reader).

There’s a concern in the author’s notes about present tense, but for me, that choice also works well. Tense and person choices are fundamentally, when we break them down, about whether the basic effects and associations readers have with that tense work with or against the kind of story we’re trying to tell. One of the big pluses of present tense can be a sense of immediacy and vividness; “Snake Head” capitalizes on that feeling with its imagery, its slightly shocky emotional tone, and centering around a question of ethical choice—what will Huey do in this moment? That means the present tense is working with the other elements of the story, not against them: what it brings to the table resonates with, backs up, and strengthens what other aspects of craft are trying to create.

The key here is how these elements reinforce each other: the metaphor set in agreement with the emotional tone and thematics, the narrative style in agreement with the core question about ethics and kindness and power, the tense agreeing with the tone. All those points of craft, every choice that was made about them, are pulling as a team toward specific goals.

Where “Snake Head” isn’t firing on all cylinders yet, I think—and this is the diagnostic!—is where elements aren’t pulling with that team, or are pulling away from it, diverting focus.

There’s a small confusion as to the supernatural element—or lack thereof—in “Snake Head”: if there’s a power in Fayt’s gaze or if he’s functionally just the first basically kind person Hugh’s ever met, and Hugh’s desperation to know why all the violence of his family doesn’t seem to touch this man is less about the supernatural than emotional strength and different systems of power. I think it’s not precisely a weakness to have that slightly unclear, but it’s enough of a small confusion to help create a split in the story’s focus.

That split grows into an open question of what “Snake Head” is centred on: whether it’s the idea of the snake head—something that can still poison even dead, a relic of violence, violence’s reach—or the image of the gaze, of the idea of being seen, the eye. Those ideas aren’t exactly in competition, but they’re the elements that I think aren’t yet working in tandem in the ways the present tense does with the imagery and thematics. They fork instead, and as I reader, I’m not sure which one is the one to put weight on, to make the central image in my head.

That’s why the last lines fall flat for me. It ends on the eye, but I’m not sure “Snake Head” was built on the eye. I’m told, as a reader, this was the way to go, which makes me wonder if the early symbol—prompted by the title!—was the wrong thing to centre.

I think it’s thoroughly repairable, and probably without too much rewriting: the only thing that needs doing is to find a way to make the central image of “Snake Head” pull together with all the other elements of craft—unify it, and unify the story with it. It’s possible to not choose one or the other, but both, here: there’s already the ghost of a link between the snake heads—”lizard eyes”—and the silver-gold eyes of the Geemoh people, and that might work too, because it finds a way to get both those elements back on the team.

But largely this is a question of decision-making: sifting through what the early draft has to find what the finished draft wants to say, and how. It’s the diagnostic process—asking people for eyes, yes, but also charting which bundles of ideas go in the same direction—that can help identify that message, and the ways to get it out that are already building themselves within the story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

On The Shelves

Portals edited by Patrica Bray and S. C. Butler, with stories by Ian Tregillis and others. (Zombies Need Brains, June 2019) 

The lure of an open doorway is hard to resist. What lies beyond? Where will it take you—and how will you be transformed? Will it lead to paradise…or a living hell? You’ll never know, unless you have the courage to take that first step.

In this anthology you will find sixteen stories of portals to exotic destinations, whether it’s a doorway in the desert that appears out of thin air, a fairy ring of mushrooms in the backyard, a crack in the road, or a train headed straight to Hell. Science fiction and fantasy authors Nancy Holzner, Esther Friesner, Ian Tregillis, Jacey Bedford, John Linwood Grant, Kate Hall, Gini Koch, Violette Malan, Juliet Kemp, James Enge, Steven Harper, F. Brett Cox, Jaime Lee Moyer, Jason Palmatier, Andrija Popovic, and Patrick Hurley invite you to step through a host of doorways to other realities with infinite possibilities, some horrible, some comic, and some just plain weird.

So take my hand—not too tight!—and let’s journey into another world. The door is open. The portal awaits.