Publication News

Our own Charles Coleman Finlay has some good news to share: “I’m happy to announce that my fantasy novelette “The Hummingbird Temple” will be appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Magazine, probably in late March. Meanwhile, my science fiction novelette “One Basket” will be appearing in the Mar/Apr issue of Analog. So 2020 is off to a very good start.”

Congratulations, Charlie!

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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 Book of Margoleth, Chapter 1 by Meredith Asher

I love the voice of this submission. There are some wonderful lines, including the opening lines. I expected the setting to be quite a bit farther south than it was, but that might just be me reading too much Southern Gothic. And of course, True Blood. Eventually I did catch on to the ambience of the North Woods.

The author’s note asks about dividing up the submission into two chapters. I don’t think there’s any firm rule for chapter length, and this one could work as a unit, beginning with a routine vampire slaying and ending with Margo’s flight. If it would work better for the novel overall for this section to be two chapters, I think I would start Chapter 2 with “It was about a mile and a half to Margo and Bernice’s house.” It seems like a good place to begin, and the action picks up quickly from there.

I have a couple of questions, and some comments on structure and craft.

First I wonder if Margo should be as casual about the stranger as she is in this draft. Considering her upbringing and what she does basically for a living, would she be more suspicious of this weird, giggling apparent human? Would she take him in as easily as she does here? Is it possible she would sense that something is off, and be more wary and less accepting?

I wonder too if she protests a bit too much about her lack of esoteric education. Are her reasons strong enough? Could they be more complicated, too? Maybe something to do with her past, or her mother’s past? Some strong, compelling motive for keeping her away from her grandmother’s arts? A curse, a threat that maybe manifests in the stranger?

In terms of plot structure, this section has a solid flow. Margo is out hunting, Margo meets the stranger, the stranger attacks, Bernice deals with him and sends Margo away. In execution however, most of the narrative consists of Margo’s internal monologue, with blocks of exposition and backstory. Even action sequences stop for a detour through a memory, or for an explanation or a bit of history. The story stops and starts, rather than moving along smoothly from one scene to the next.

Paring down the monologue, focusing on information that is directly relevant to the particular scene, will help focus the narrative. So will reducing repetition. Presenting a piece of information once, in just the right place, will resonate through the whole chapter and, with a reminder here and there, through the rest of the novel. The more direct the action is, the fewer filters there are between it and the reader, the more immediate the reader’s experience becomes. It’s the difference between being told about an event, and living through it.

Margo’s characterization in general has a certain flatness to it. She acts and is acted upon, but the action is nearly all on the surface. When the stranger attacks her and drags her around, her internal monologue goes silent. There’s action but no reaction; we see what happens to her, but we don’t know what’s happening underneath. We aren’t shown how it feels.

In revision I would suggest pruning monologue and exposition, and in its place, adding layers of emotion. Let us feel as well as see and hear. Take us under Margo’s skin. Show us what it’s like to be Margo—inside, where her deeper self lives. Then the great lines will really stand out, and Margo’s narrative voice will be even more delightful than it already is.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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.

In A Hurry by Michael Glaviano

The story generates a strong atmosphere around the old research tower, with the ancient elevator, flickering lights, and strange, chaotic lab.  The story has some very visual images, especially in the first half, so I almost experience this like a movie in my head.  The atmosphere makes me feel that strange, threatening things can happen in this place, which makes the ending believable.

The setting at the end, the staircase, reminds me some of the sub-basement in “The Rats in the Walls” by H. P. Lovecraft, with the implication that things get worse the deeper he goes.

I think the story has a strong idea and setting, but doesn’t yet have a plot or protagonist that maximizes the impact of the idea and setting.  Gordon is a hapless, distracted protagonist.  He does things without much thought, and that ends up dooming him.  While behaving thoughtlessly (or being in a hurry) can certainly lead to one’s doom, that doesn’t make a very strong plot in this case.  Gordon never seems to have a chance of success, because of who he is.  If he gave his immediate situation more thought and was a bit more on the ball, he might have a chance.  But that’s not who he is, so he doesn’t.  He’s basically a powerless victim in the story, which doesn’t make him a strong protagonist.  A protagonist needs to have some power/ability to affect events–he can have a lot of power or only a little, but he needs some.  I don’t see that Gordon has any.

That leaves me, at the end, feeling somewhat disturbed by the staircase, but it’s a distant, abstract feeling, because I’m not strongly connected to Gordon.  If Gordon were a horrible person and I had followed his horrible actions closely and formed a bond with him, then I could be happy at the end that he’s getting his comeuppance.  If Gordon were a good person and I had followed his struggles to do good closely and formed a bond with him, I could be upset and horrified that he’s trapped in such a situation at the end.  But because I’m watching Gordon from a distance, thinking how foolish he is not to listen to Philips and not to take more care in counting the floors, I don’t feel much of anything for him at the end.  Since this is a horror story, feeling nothing is not a good outcome.

He also, as far as he is aware, doesn’t have much at stake in the story until he realizes the nature of the staircase near the end.  That means he’s not really struggling strongly to achieve a goal and isn’t strongly engaged in what’s happening until near the end.  That means I don’t feel much engagement, suspense, or emotion.

I think a story with a protagonist who is too much in a hurry to notice what’s important might be more emotional and involving if the protagonist was very focused on achieving some goal (getting to an important meeting on time, for example) and was struggling against obstacles to achieve that goal so that we became very involved and rooting for him to make it to the meeting.  Then we would be caught up in the hurry also.  If the protagonist then drives through a yellow light and hits a pedestrian and kills that person, we would be devastated, because we were caught up in the same state of mind as the protagonist.  Those conditions aren’t being met in this story.  Gordon’s goal to get back to his office to work on a long-delayed project isn’t a very involving or urgent one; it’s not one we share; and his fate is more the product of the staircase than of his hurry.  We don’t know whether he would have been fine if he’d taken his time and counted the floors as directed, though I suspect not.  So I don’t think this plot fits well with the theme that being in a hurry can carry horrific consequences.

Looking at the other character, Philips seems pretty much the stereotypical eccentric scientist.  He doesn’t seem to do much in the story except provide us with a scientific reason for the staircase–that it’s an inter-dimensional portal of some kind.

One other character, the dean, is mentioned.

I think you could do much more with the characters to generate more emotion and involvement from readers and a more powerful plot.  For example, let’s say Philips and Gordon are both working on interdimensional connections, but doing so separately.  The dean is also a specialist in this area, but since his promotion, he’s stopped active research.  He still explores theory, though, and he’s developed a new theory of interdimensional connections.  Everyone in the research division knows he’s been working on this.  The story could open with Gordon in the dean’s office, fearing that he’s going to be fired because his research just led to a failed experiment, confirming that his last few years of work have been a total waste of time. He has tenure, so he doesn’t think he can get fired, but he could be demoted or moved out of the institute into a regular teaching job, a huge humiliation.  The dean has done this with researchers who haven’t produced–those researchers are transferred out and never heard from again.  Gordon’s goal is to not get transferred out of the institute.  The dean comments on the failure and asks Gordon to deliver a draft of the dean’s new theory to Philips immediately.  The dean says he was ready to share his breakthrough theory with Gordon if Gordon’s experiment had succeeded.  But since it didn’t, he’s sharing his theory with Philips. And if Gordon doesn’t show some progress soon, he might not have much of a future at the institute.

Gordon believes the dean wants to humiliate him, turning him into a delivery boy and having to face Philips in that capacity, as a failure.  The dean likes to play games.  Gordon takes the paper, which is sealed in an envelope.  He wonders if he could get into the envelope to read the theory before delivering it. His goal now is to learn the dean’s new theory.

The next scene could show Gordon going up in the elevator to see Philips and examining the envelope to see if it shows any signs of his tampering.  He opened the envelope and read the contents, but there was an unfamiliar symbol among the familiar ones, so he couldn’t understand it.  It seems almost like the separation from other dimensions vanishes if a certain condition is met.  But he doesn’t know what the certain condition is.

He gives the envelope to Philips, who seems like he might have noticed the tampering.  Gordon encourages him to open it and read it, hoping he’ll be able to engage Philips in conversation and learn about the unfamiliar symbol.  In the meantime, he’s trying to memorize the setup of Philips’s lab and figure out what kind of experiments he’s doing.

After Philips reads the theory, he seems to regard Gordon with new interest.  Gordon asks Philips out to coffee, but Philips says he’s too busy.  He asks Gordon if he’d like to participate in Philips’s research.  A research subject called in sick, and he doesn’t want to fall behind.  Gordon agrees, eager to learn about Philips’s experiments.

Philips shows Gordon moving images–like videos but not videos.  And they’re of Gordon doing things Gordon doesn’t remember doing.  In one, the dean is promoting Gordon to chief researcher.  In another, Gordon is selling computers at Best Buy.  As Gordon looks at each image, it radiates a weird light that gives him a strange feeling.  Gordon realizes he’s looking at himself in other dimensions.  Could he be a loser working at Best Buy in some dimension?  He tries to figure out how Philips has gotten these images.  One shows him opening the envelope, but the paper inside just says, “THIS IS A TEST.”  The images get weirder, with Gordon screaming, and in some he seems to be the tormentor and in some the tormented.  This leaves Gordon very unsettled.

Finally Gordon comes out and asks Philips to explain how he’s doing this, to tell him what the symbol means in the dean’s theory.  What is the factor that can make the separation between dimensions vanish?

Philips says it’s just your state of mind.  When you realize there is no difference between the dimensions, then the separation vanishes.

Gordon thinks this is Philips’s way of refusing to answer his question.  Philips is giving him a nonsense answer.  Gordon is furious and lets Philips know.  Philips asks if Gordon wants to hurt him.  Gordon says of course not.

Gordon heads for the elevator, and Philips tells him the call button doesn’t work; he’ll need to take the stairs.

In the staircase, Gordon thinks more about the images he saw.  He realizes that they were all him, that there is nothing inherently brilliant about him that would make him succeed in all dimensions.  He just got a lucky break with this position at the institute, and he may end up losing his position.  Some doors are locked, some open and show him dimensions in which he’s doing different things.  In some he’s a failure (in his estimation); in some he’s a success.  In some he is being tortured.  In some he is torturing.  He realizes that looking at the images has made the separation between dimensions vanish.  He rebels against the idea that there is no difference between the dimensions.  Of course there’s a difference.  He tries to convince himself of this–to believe he can be only the person he is now, not any of those others–to restore the separation between dimensions and be back in his own dimension.  He searches for the lobby door, to get back to his own dimension.  He goes down.  He hears the screams and curses and insane gibbering from below.  They are coming up the stairs.  He realizes he must choose a door.  He also realizes that the dean had sent him to Philips to be used in an experiment and discarded.  That’s probably what happened to the others who were “transferred” out of the institute.  He’s lost his precious position.  He finds the door to what looks like his dimension.  But now he knows what he faces there.  Failure.  He’s filled with shame and rage; maybe that’s what he is–a failure–in every dimension, whether he seems successful or not.  It’s not fair.  Why is Philips able to succeed while he is relegated to nothing?  The gibbering gets closer.  He goes down a flight, chooses the door where he is the torturer, and enters.

Anyway, that’s one possibility that would give Gordon strong goals he’s struggling to achieve, put more at stake, give him the power to affect what happens, take him through a character arc and epiphany, and require he make a difficult decision at the climax.  I think those things will make readers more engaged, increasing the intensity of the suspense and emotions they feel.

The story has some well-chosen details, and I really enjoy the images, such as the infinite staircase.  The atmosphere is very strong.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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


Writing Challenge/Prompt

We all go through hard time, or face challenges in life. Sometimes we solve the problem easily. Other times are harder, or we can’t find a solution.

Now imagine a character whose every action, every solution to simple everyday problems changes the fate of a stranger–or the entire world. What would someone do when that became clear?

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)

Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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.

Medon by Bill S.

The hushed, spun-out, precise prose of “Medon” is what caught my attention this month—and inside just one sentence. Beautifully written, incredibly observed, tonal and subtle, there’s masterful sentence-level work going on in this piece, but sometimes the aspects of our craft strong enough to carry a story can veil what has room for further work, and I think that’s at the core of the author’s question: why “Medon” is getting second reads, but no acceptances yet. This month, I’d like to discuss looking at other aspects of craft on a story when reaching excellence on one of them isn’t getting the result, and how we build the understructures that make a story operating on dreamlike logic work.

I can immediately see what’s garnered this piece some second reads at magazines (as per the author’s notes!): “Medon” establishes atmosphere and tone in the very first sentence. The word choice in that one line does so much work, from picking slightly inobvious and non-aggressive verbs (paddled, pulled, dipping) to set an emotional mood, to the intense alliteration within the sentence (paddled pulling pale paddles) that stitches it all together and connects it to the next (swollen steady say surgeon), as well as the animacy of the imagery (waters that are swollen, trees with limbs, blades that are paletiny hands, open mouth). The rhythm of it reminds me of a Nick Cave song, of Virginia Woolf—of a certain type of early 20th century modernist British literature—and all the connotations of that time and place come with it: a sense of shimmering, terrible, beautiful impermanence.

That is an incredible amount of work being done in one line, in a first line, and conflict, place, and cast are established just as quietly and quickly before the first paragraph is done. And that work stays consistent through the piece. Overall, the writing here is absolutely stellar: it’s rhythmic, specific, textured, made of sound, and every hitch in its diction unveils an emotion. It forces me to read “Medon” slow enough to savour, to spend time with every line.

If “Medon” hasn’t found a home yet, it’s because of something other than the sentence-level writing, and when we’re not sure what’s causing friction between a story and editors, it’s worthwhile to take a subtractive approach: eliminate what we know is working and then read the story with every other element of craft in mind, to see which one gives us the mental hitch of something that has room for improvement. As a reader, I should be able to peel away that beautiful prose and still find a solid and cohesive story world, characters with internal logic, a plot that has beats and develops causally and pays off into results that matter, thematics with something to say. It’s when one of those engines isn’t firing quite on full that stories, I think, hit second reads and then rejections.

When I peeled away the prose itself, a few points stood out to me as potential sites for work, and the major one was plot logic and narrative motion. The prose draws me through “Medon” so effectively that it’s easy to not notice how major plot points have not been set up until they’re upon me, and feel abrupt and unsatisfying because that information isn’t within a cycle of setup-and-payoff. Dreamlike fiction definitely relies on mood, pace, and aesthetic, but reader-brains still find the same things in a story satisfying: setup and resolution, tension and payoff. The atmosphere of a story like “Medon” is gorgeous, but it’s useful to think of it as the skin, and it won’t move unless there are solid narrative mechanics underneath, muscles and bones, to make it walk. The trick is to create a sense of tension and payoff underneath that sense of dream-logic, so the story feels both strange and eerie but also inherently satisfying and solid. It’s not so much skimping on one’s plotting work as covering it over and expressing it in different ways.

With “Medon”, I think that understructure isn’t quite complete, and the abruptness of how key information (the dreams, the voice) is deployed is just one way that expresses itself; a patch of slow pacing around the walk through the woods toward Medon is another, because we are still moving, but nothing is narratively progressing yet, nothing is paying off at a point in a piece when it would be appropriate to drop the first few narrative dominoes and have them set off the next. The turn to finding Medon is abrupt, the connection between the flashback and what the old man transforms into still tenuous-feeling, the twist into a mission of revenge startling and oddly out of place given the tone the rest of the story created. And—I’m not sure that’s a goal that really lives up to the fine-grained attention the rest of the story’s putting out there. It’s fairly archetypical; it feels out of character. It’s an easy answer and everything else in this piece has led me as a reader to expect more complex ones—again, this is a question of satisfaction, setup and payoff. What have I as a reader been led to expect, and am I getting it?

Ultimately, I was left asking: What is actually happening here, on a barest plot level, and why is it satisfying to me as a reader and important to these characters? and that’s diagnostic of a plotting question still to be resolved.

What I’d suggest, in the face of that, is a serious and thoroughly thought-out redraft that approaches those questions head-on, run through the filter of what’s being set up, what’s being paid off in every scene. There’s so much thought being put into certain aspects of “Medon”; I’d love to see what it becomes if that much thought is applied to other aspects too, and the somewhat thinner logic of the archetypical rich people on high ground with guns, mysterious kissing knowledge, and revenge gets the attention, care, and complexity of a voice made of orchestra and bees; of wind, water, grass.

This is a lot of work—take this story apart, and then put it back together—but I think if you really step back, look at every element of craft, and think about what this story is and how each part of it can be strong in its own right to support the others, how each element of craft in “Medon” interacts, it’ll be very possible to give this story a sense of plotting and pacing that supports that prose so firmly that the entire piece is luminous. I think the story is very much worth that work.

Best of luck!

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

Publication News

Charles Coleman Finlay wants the world to know:  “I’m happy to announce that my fantasy novelette “The Hummingbird Temple” will be appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, probably in late March. Meanwhile, my science fiction novelette “One Basket” will be appearing in the Mar/Apr issue of Analog. So 2020 is off to a very good start.”

Congratulations, Charlie!

On The Shelves

Stormsong (The Kingston Cycle book 2) by C.L. Polk (, February 2020)

Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her parents to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.

Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?

Carved from Stone and Dream: A Los Nefilim Novel by T. Frohock (Harper Voyager February 2020)

February 1939

Catalonia has fallen. Los Nefilim is in retreat.

With the Nationalist forces hard on their heels, the members of Los Nefilim—Spanish Nephilim that possess the power to harness music and light in the supernatural war between the angels and daimons—make a desperate run for the French border.

Diago Alvarez, a singular being of angelic and daimonic descent, follows Guillermo and a small group of nefilim through the Pyrenees, where the ice is as treacherous as postwar loyalties—both can kill with a single slip. When a notebook of Los Nefilim’s undercover operatives falls into a traitor’s hands, Diago and Guillermo risk their lives to track it down. As they uncover a pocket realm deep within the Pyrenees, Diago discovers his family is held hostage.

Faced with an impossible choice: betray Los Nefilim, or watch his family die, Diago must nurture the daimonic song he has so long denied in order to save those he loves.

Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, 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.

Hoarded Thoughts Chapter 1 by Michael Curl

I had a lot of fun with this submission. It’s an unusual setup and an equally unusual set of characters. I do wonder if 15,000 words will be enough to tell the whole story, but would need to see more of the chapter to get a fuller sense of the shape and scope of the plot.

One big question I have is how the ogre manages to have both male and female halves. There’s one reference to magic, but I want a bit more. Are all ogres constructed like this, or is this one unique? How and why would a god fuse two individuals together in this way? It’s complicated for them to move, but it also forces cooperation, which might be a cosmic lesson. I’d love to know the story that goes with the nifty idea.

How that story unfolds is important. A block of exposition at the beginning can be hard for a reader to get over. Maybe there could be hints, a gradual revelation. And maybe the ogres’ condition plays a part in the development of the plot—not just in how they function, but why they’re the way they are. And that might be important to the outcome of the story.

I’d like to know, too, why the female is apparently of low intelligence and the male is much more advanced in his thought processes. That might get a bit complicated in the current social and cultural climate. Is she in fact as intelligent as he is, but equally unable to express her thoughts? If so, and if they’re mutually telepathic, wouldn’t he know this? And wouldn’t we be able to see, through him, that her inner life is so much different than her outer one? Even though he’s hoarding thoughts, might he still be able to read hers? How does it all work?

This might be addressed later on in the story, of course. I’m just noting what comes to mind as I read this opening section. There’s no need to front-load it all; in fact, a little mystery and suspense is a good thing. It keeps the reader turning pages, eager to find out if her questions have answers.

If this were my story, I’d focus on these larger issues first, and save the line edits for a later stage. That would be the time to smooth out the tone and the emotional affect. There are lovely bits of description, and glimpses of a grander or darker atmosphere. If that’s the direction the story wants to take, the seeds are there. This version however still leans a bit more toward the lighter side of fantasy: an ongoing sense of almost slapstick in the way the twofold ogre moves, for example.

When the worldbuilding is more developed and the tone is clearer in the author’s mind, I would suggest a really good, close edit, word for word and phrase for phrase. I quite like some of the language, such images as

The words were clear as mountain water inside his head, but on his tongue they sounded muddy.

I might use a different verb than sounded, but the rest is lovely. And this:

Jal loved how stupid humans made their animals.

It’s an unusual insight into the mind of an ogre. Pretty up-to-date science in this world, too, which gives it a nice double resonance.

Sometimes however, the phrasing strains a bit. Watch out for awkward phrasing:

Jal moved his head with big heavy nods

This is an odd use of the word nod, and odd phrasing.

He waited a second to feel her shoulder rise, But instead of pushing themselves off their back as a human would do, they turned their heads to face, the ground, and knuckle-walked like a gorilla into the orchard.

Check the punctuation and capitalization, and work on the way in which both the characters and their actions are described. I had trouble visualizing this, despite earlier descriptions of how they’re constructed. I found myself wanting more clarity, and more precision in the phrasing and the imagery.

Keep an eye on the figures of speech, too. Here’s a mixed metaphor:

their wide trumpet ears scanning the darkness like owl eyes

Trumpets are both a visual and an auditory image, and that works for ears (to me it suggests Shrek—which may be something to ponder when refining the tone of the story). The switch to the visual image of owl eyes is a bit disconcerting. Is there another image that would fit ears and sounds, and convey a similar effect?

The main thing to aim for is to keep the reader reading. If she has to stop and figure out what a particular passage is trying to say, she loses track of the narrative. The clearer the prose is, the easier the story is to follow. Then she’ll stay with it all the way to the end.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, 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.

RAI by Alex Taylor

This chapter has some interesting things going on. It sets up a classic conflict between artificial and human intelligence (with further conflicts among the humans), and lets us see how the AI’s thought processes work. The computer language operates through analogies to human experience, which adds a layer of accessibility for the human reader.

I’d like to talk about two things in this Editor’s Choice.

1. Whom are you writing for?

Every written work has an intended audience. It may be written for the writer’s own taste and level of knowledge—as a sort of private note-to-self, with no accommodation made for others. Or it may be written for a particular set of readers—defined either broadly or narrowly depending on what the writer wants her work to accomplish.

Since this is a novel and has been submitted to this workshop for critique, I can assume it’s written for a genre-savvy audience. It’s not labeled for younger readers; it aims, then, at the adult reader of science fiction. I am picking up those signals in subject matter, setting and characters, and arc of the plot as far as the chapter lets us see.

The chapter presumes a reader who is computer-literate, who can pick up on finer points of coding and language, and who has a fairly sophisticated understanding of how programming and programmers operate. That’s a fine thing for a hard science fiction novel. But the chapter as is could use a little polish, and some pruning of the opening section.

The long passage of coding gibberish does establish the utter chaos that overwhelms Rai. Even for the educated reader, however, that’s a lot of data-barf. Just as with real barf, a little goes a long way. A line or two, with a concise indication that this is a somewhat lengthy process, would make the point quite as effectively and rather more mercifully for the reader’s eyes.

“A little goes a long way” is a useful maxim in general. Unconventional narrative techniques and unusual rhetorical and contextual tricks are great fun, but the writer has to walk the line between too much and not enough.

The educated reader will sit still longer for abstruse and arcane lore, but it never hurts to think about the less educated reader, too. This reader comes to the story for plot and characters and setting—all those good things—but will skim over the arcana. A big wall of it may bounce him out altogether. If there’s just enough to keep the knowledgeable reader engaged, but not so much that the more casual reader gives up and leaves, there’s your sweet spot.

2. Framing and Blocking of Scenes

The opening sequence is fairly clear about what is happening and to whom. Once the chapter moves on the human characters, however, it becomes harder to follow. Part of that may be the formatting: one of the simplest ways to signal a change of setting, viewpoint, or timeline is a plain old line space.

Within these different scenes, however, there’s a tendency to skip connections. Characters seem to strobe from place to place and from timeline to timeline. Conversations pop up without a clear sense of where or when they happen. Events are described somewhat nonlinearly; it’s difficult to tell if a scene is happening sequentially, if it’s a flashback, or if the narrative has jumped ahead.

I would recommend taking some time to block out each scene. Figure out when it happens and where it’s set, and make sure it’s clear where everybody is. If characters are moving around, check to be sure you’ve let the reader see them move.

It is perfectly acceptable to jump from scene to scene without obvious transitions—“they walked here,” “two hours later,” “meanwhile, back at the bot farm”—but the scene should establish who-what-where-when with enough clarity that the reader doesn’t have to stop and hunt for a context. When pulling in information from the past or foreshadowing the future, give it a little space to breathe. Let it stand out slightly. Slow down a bit, let us see the change of time or place. Frame the scene with a line or a phrase, so that we get a sense of where we are and when, and how that time and place emerge out of the last scene and move the story forward into the next.

Yes, this works with flashbacks and braided timelines, too. It’s a matter of making sure each section of the story is clearly delineated. We should be able to follow it wherever it goes, and still keep track of the larger dimensions of the plot.

–Judith Tarr