Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Horror

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

Queen Of The Wilis (Updated) by Kelsey Hutton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jeannie Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


Publication News

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

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

Editor’s Choice Review February 2017, Short Story

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

Kings Of Snow by Cecile Cristofari

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grapevine/Market News

Persistent Visions is looking for fresh fiction that skirts the edges of reality.  They pay 7 cents a word for first English world rights, and first option on anthology and podcast reprint rights. Stories selected for reprint in anthologies and podcasts will receive addition payment. Stories can be up to 7,500 words long, and previously unpublished in English. Payment on acceptance. Full guidelines found here.

Worlds Without Master is currently seeking works of fiction totaling 2,500 words or less in the sword & sorcery genre. They pay $200 for the rights to accepted works. Full guidelines can be found here.

Reviewer Honor Roll

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

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

[ January 2017] Honor Roll Nominees

Reviewer: David Wise
Submission: Untitled Welsh Valleys ghost type story by David Rees-Thomas
Submitted by: David Rees-Thomas

Reviewer: Cherae Clark
Submission: Fox’s Tongue and Kirin’s Bone Ch 4 & 5 by Allison Kovacs
Submitted by: Allison Kovacs

Reviewer: K. E. Cooper
Submission: Dragon Defenders (Chapter 1) by Elizabeth Webber
Submitted by: Elizabeth Webber

Reviewer: Mark Quarterman
Submission: Garden of Purgatory C4C by Robin Zell
Submitted by: Robin Zell

Reviewer: CK Attner
Submission: Prodigious Roads by Phil Williams
Submitted by: Phil Williams

Reviewer: M T
Submission: Prologue by Jon Adams
Submitted by: Jon Adams

Reviewer: Gregor Hartmann
Submission: Nothing to See Here by William Delman
Submitted by: William Delman

Reviewer: Michael Wells
Submission: Untitled Welsh Valleys ghost type story by David Rees-Thomas
Submitted by: David Rees-Thomas

Member News Of Note

Jodi Meadows revealed the cover of the first book in her new Fallen Isles Trilogy. You can see the stunning cover for Before She Ignites here. Look for the book in September 2017!

Fran Wilde shared the news that her work made the Locus Recommended Reading List in three separate categories. Cloudbound for novels, The Jewel and Her Lapidary for novellas, and “Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left” in short stories. Congratulations, Fran!

On The Shelves

With Blood Upon the Sand (Song of Shattered Sands) by Bradley P. Beaulieu (DAW, February 2017)  1 blood upon the sand

Çeda, now a Blade Maiden in service to the kings of Sharakhai, trains as one of their elite warriors, gleaning secrets even as they send her on covert missions to further their rule. She knows the dark history of the asirim—that hundreds of years ago they were enslaved to the kings against their will—but when she bonds with them as a Maiden, chaining them to her, she feels their pain as if her own. They hunger for release, they demand it, but with the power of the gods compelling them, they find their chains unbreakable.

Çeda could become the champion they’ve been waiting for, but the need to tread carefully has never been greater. After their recent defeat at the hands of the rebel Moonless Host, the kings are hungry for blood, scouring the city in their ruthless quest for revenge. Çeda’s friend Emre and his new allies in the Moonless Host hope to take advantage of the unrest in Sharakhai, despite the danger of opposing the kings and their god-given powers, and the Maidens and their deadly ebon blades.

When Çeda and Emre are drawn into a plot of the blood mage Hamzakiir, they learn a devastating secret that may very well shatter the power of the hated kings. But it may all be undone if Çeda cannot learn to navigate the shifting tides of power in Sharakhai and control the growing anger of the asirim that threatens to overwhelm her…




Writing Challenge/Prompt

Think about this: You go to bed in your own house, in your own room. When you wake you’re outside. Polished ceramic walls–too smooth and too high to climb–surround you. You almost miss the small opening that lets you escape the circle, but you see the walls continuing on.

Where are you? How do you get home again?

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

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

Editor’s Choice Review January 2017, Fantasy

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

Chronicles of Dorin: Chapter IV (Part 1 of 2) by Siby Plathottam

First of all, a standard disclaimer:

There is no wrong way to write a draft, especially a first draft. However the words need to get from your mind to the page, that’s how they have to do it. The time to worry about everything else comes later in the process.

When you’re concentrating on getting the words down, pretty much anything goes. There’s no pressing need to worry about what exactly those words are until it’s time for the final polish. At that point however, it pays to understand your own process, whether you draft in quick sketches and fill in later, or put in all the things and then pare and prune until the outlines of the story are perfectly clear.

Here I think there’s a tendency toward the latter process, but also a desire to be totally clear on the level of words and sentences, to spell out in detail exactly what’s going on and why. As I read, I got a sense that the author wants very much for me to understand what each word and sentence means. There’s a bit of playfulness, too, and an occasional fillip of metaphor or lovingly crafted simile.

The chapter has a nice straightforward story line. Even without reading the earlier chapters or the summary the author has provided, I can mostly tell who’s who. I don’t wonder about what’s happening at any given point, and at the end I can see where the plot is going.

That same impulse toward clarity extends to the prose. Words and actions and concepts are modified and modified again with additional details. For example:

  • Catey nodded in reply…
  • Gianna only nodded gloomily in reply.
  • Catey dictated a reply to her that wetted the house mistress’s eyes as she wrote it onto a parchment with an ink quill.
  • Everyone was puzzled but they didn’t argue with the inspector, and followed Mistress Gianna as she led them to a room upstairs.

While it’s a laudable thing to try for minimal ambiguity in one’s prose, past a certain point the prose risks becoming redundant. The same general ideas repeat, sometimes in multiple forms, as if the author doesn’t quite trust the reader to get what she’s trying to say.

In the first two examples, Catey and Giana are responding affirmatively to comments made by other characters. We don’t need to be told in so many words that they’re responding (or replying—this word is an author favorite). Just the nod is enough. It tells the reader all she needs to know.

In the third example, we have an interesting combination of too much and not quite enough. “Dictated” implies that Catey is speaking and Gianna is writing the words down. The detail of the parchment establishes a bit of worldbuilding—we’re in a society that uses cured animal skin rather than paper, and the presence of a quill reinforces the sense of a preindustrial past. But ink seems redundant. I think most fantasy readers would know that when a person writes with a quill, the person is using ink. No need to specify; the author can trust the reader to pick up the implication.

There’s another layer here, too. Is it essential to the plot in this particular instance for the reader to know what writing materials Gianna is using? Does it move the story forward at this exact point? Can we get all the information we need, right here and now, if we’re simply told Gianna is writing what Catey dictates?

At the same time, the rest of the sentence made me stop and squint and try to figure out exactly what the author is trying to do. “Wetted” isn’t quite the word for Gianna’s emotional (and physical) reaction. I feel as if I need a different term, and maybe more than one word, in order to get a proper sense of what’s happening to her.

The final example combines concise writing in the first half and redundancy in the second. What we most need to know is that she leads everybody upstairs. It’s not essential to the story, right at this point, to know into what kind of space she leads them. “She led them upstairs” gets the job done and lets us keep our focus on what’s happening downstairs.

In writing, clarity and focus are not necessarily the same thing. A writer can keep adding details to clarify what she’s talking about, but focused writing zeroes in on a much smaller number of essential details. These are the details that can’t be left out, that the reader must have in order to understand what’s happening. Everything else is gravy–nice to have, enhances the flavor, but a little goes a long way.

Choosing just the right word helps, too. Sometimes we want to shake things up, try a different way of saying what we’re trying to say, enjoy a bit of figurative language. That can work well, but as always, we have to be sure the word really means what we want it to mean. We also have to make sure that when we pause to develop an image, that development serves a purpose. The image has a reason to be there: it advances the story, develops the character, enhances the setting.

It’s all about telling the story in the clearest and strongest and most effective way possible. Vivid and believable characters, well-crafted dialogue, fully realized world and setting, all begin with the choice of words. Both the words we do use, and the ones that, as we prune and polish, we choose to leave out.

I call that “Narrative Economy.” Every word has a role to play, and each one earns its keep.

–Judith Tarr