Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Fantasy

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

Gravity Chapter 1 and 2, by Steph C. Smith

This submission is very long—ideally it would have been half the length—but the idea caught my eye and the protagonist’s voice in the first few paragraphs held it. I like the concept of a character who can manipulate gravity. It’s not the usual superpower, and it has interesting ramifications.

Two things stood out for me as I read.

1. Plotting and Structure

The opening is fairly brisk and dives right into the action, though the prose could be tighter. On that, see observation number 2. The second half stops the action for a lengthy session of expository dialogue, in which we get the backstory in detai, though a character who is developed enough to be interesting, but who seems to exist primarily to convey information the protagonist needs before she can move on. Another character shows up in the midst of this; her arrival seems rather random, and it doesn’t seem to tie in with the exposition.

Though the author’s note does not specify, I got the impression that the novel is a sequel and that this chapter is designed to fill in the new reader on the events of the previous volume. Whether or not that impression is accurate, the chapter puts the plot on hold while Jude is filled in on what’s happened since the last time she was conscious. There’s a lot of information, a lot of offstage action, and a lot of people and places and politics and events that the reader has to process before the story moves on.

Conveying the information in dialogue, with character quirks and bits of stage business—cooking, eating, exchanging introductions, stopping for the arrival and departure of a third party—is meant to frame the exposition in active and interesting ways. Dialogue is active, we’re taught in writing classes, and characters talking is a kind of action. It’s alive. It’s people interacting.

A character telling another character all the things that have happened over a period of months, even with the tellee asking questions and getting answers, is a technique I call “offstaging.” Action happens offstage. Characters talk about it onstage. It sets up a barrier between the reader and the action.

If this is a sequel and Jude (as well as the reader coming to the series for the first time) does need to know all of it before she can make the next set of choices that move the plot, there may be other ways to convey the information. In a world in which magic works, she might experience the flashbacks as visions—removing the filter of Abe’s narration. She might actively seek out the different sets of information through some form of scrying, library-trawling, googling. Abe might give her hints and clues which she has to decipher more gradually, which in turn will reduce the number of names and conflicts and events that the reader has to process at this early stage in the narrative.

If this is the first volume of a series, there’s at least a novel’s worth of backstory in Abe’s exposition. It might be conveyed through the narrative, revealed as each piece of information is directly relevant to Jude’s actions and interactions. Breaking up the exposition will help the story to move ahead more quickly, and give Jude more room to reveal her personality, her wants and needs, her history and trauma.

One thing that may help the pacing and give the narrative more room to move is my second observation:

2. Tightening the Prose

The narrative voice gets a good start on signaling Urban Fantasy and establishing Jude as the tough-gal protagonist with a nice turn of wit. The opening action is also a good start. There’s a lot of good potential in the initial setup.

One way to bring that potential even more to the fore is to trim and tuck the prose, make it sharper and clearer, and heighten the tension and suspense through the structure of the sentences. In general, action likes to progress in short, punchy bursts: brief sentences, relatively simple syntax. This doesn’t mean writing in a rapid chop and never slowing down for a longer or more leisurely section of narrative, but there are a few stylistic habits that might be worth rethinking.

“And” splices, for example, connecting separate actions. “But,” “so,” and “then” have the same effect. They weaken the force of the story by stringing actions together rather than letting each one hold its own space.

I swung it at his head, but he dodged, so I flung it instead at the mirror over the sink hard enough to shatter the glass.

Try breaking up the sentence. Remove the conjunctions. Let each action punch on its own—bam, bam, bam. Then at the end, which dribbles off a bit, keep the action going: I flung it at the mirror over the sink. The glass shattered.

Here too, rather than stringing clauses together, try them as separate sentences:

On my way to the door, I slammed my hip against the end of the bed and fell to my hands and knees. The impact made my stomach lurch and I bit my tongue to keep from gagging.

See how removing the and splices changes the way the actions come across. If you keep the first and, try breaking up the second sentence, so that the two separate physical responses take place separately.

Another way to heighten the force of a sentence, particularly in an action scene, is to use active constructions. Gerunds—words that end in ing—slow and soften the action. They dangle off the edge of a sentence, weakening its force. A series of gerunds can slow down the action, particularly in a series of sentences with the same structure.

I took another breath, shaking my head as if it might loosen that memory and let it slip away. I moved my hands to my head, taking some comfort in running my fingers through my hair. It was longer than I remembered, curling past my shoulders.

Breaking up the clauses, again, can make each piece of the action stronger, more assertive. Varying the sentence structure keeps the reader’s eye and mind engaged, providing a little bit of friction to move the story forward. Replacing gerunds with active verbs can further enhance the effect.

When I’m revising my own prose, one thing I watch out for is a tendency to repeat information. I might try several different ways to say the same thing, then in revision pick the one that works the best for the context.

The flip-flops were uncomfortable, and not quiet. The slap of plastic foam on the pavement grated on my already-fried nerves. No doubt anyone in a three-block radius could hear it and tail me, and running in these things was going to result in an instant face-plant, Faerie powers or not.

These three sentences might condense into one, focusing on the details that want to repeat: the noise and the discomfort of her stolen footwear. One clause for the noise, one for the awkwardness, and then an active bit rather than a potential passive: she tries to run in them, they flap noisily, she starts to stumble, she has to slow down and pull herself together.

Sometimes blocking out a scene for my own use means trying different ways to convey my character’s actions and reactions.

My stomach twisted and I caught myself against a building, the fire in my veins extinguished. I kept my gaze on the sidewalk to fight off the visions of the people I’d already broken. The startling ache behind my eyes meant I couldn’t let those memories come back in detail. I’d never been the type of girl who dissolved into tears on the street and this wasn’t the time to start.

Here I might choose one of these sentences to keep, the one that best sums up what she’s doing and feeling. The rest I’d move to my Outtakes file, to save for later.

In draft, too, it can be tempting to insert a full description of a new character, as a sort of note to self.

She took a few steps into the room. She moved like a dancer. She had flawless brown skin and short, curly hair that started light blue at the roots then faded into a more normal black as it reached her ears. A tiny diamond stud twinkled in one nostril.

In revision, I ask myself which particular detail is directly relevant at this particular point. That’s the one I keep. The rest, again, I put aside. It may come in handy later.

Even if it doesn’t, I’ve given myself a fuller picture of who she is and what she looks like. If I’ve chosen the right detail, the reader will pick up the rest.

Jude has a nice strong voice. Tighter prose and sharper focus, along with some rethinking of how to convey the backstory, will make that voice even clearer. Even in this draft I have some sympathy for her predicament, and I’m curious to see how she sets about getting out of it—or, considering the state of her luck, how she manages to dig herself in even deeper.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Science Fiction

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

 

Perfection by Sarah Kanning

t’s a tremendous challenge to write a science-fiction story under 2000 words: to build a world and people it with characters and develop the structure of a plot. To do it backwards ups the ante even further. I love that this submission tries to do all that, and I think the characters and the basic conflict take up plenty of space. There’s definitely a story here.

I do agree however that the structure needs some rethinking. The straight backwards organization of events starts to feel strained about halfway through.

Maybe it’s me with my linear brain and long familiarity with stories that run in the other direction, though I don’t find I want that to happen here. There’s interest and intrigue, for me, in the unfolding of information, in not knowing everything exactly as it happens chronologically.

At the same time, I think the order of events needs some shaking up. Start with the killing, yes—I like the shock of that—but weave the backstory in through the immediate sequence of events that leads to this conclusion. Maybe play with verb tenses: present for story-present, past for backstory. Mix it up a little bit. Let revelations spark as they become relevant—a flash of memory, connections made as present events or sensory input recalls earlier incidents. The stress of knowing what Hayden was in the beginning, versus what he’s become. Word-echoes, echoes of concepts, as memory and immediate action merge. The prose, the choice of words and the juxtaposition of ideas, might do even more than it currently does to link events and characters.

It’s doable, I think, within the limits of the current word count, though some of that might be recast a little bit, for clarity. Such phrases as

the hacked gash and the darkening contusion precisely centered on the solar plexus

are almost too concise—and at the same time, seem almost redundant. Perhaps just a gash, with hacked left to implication?

And here too,

come manacle and haul me away

feels slightly overcompressed but also overly specific. Do we need to know exactly how he’s bound? Is it enough that he’s hauled away?

The answer could of course be Yes, it has to be this way. And that’s the author’s right and power. Especially when writing very short, every word has its carefully chosen place. Everything comes together into that perfect, single point, which here is the nature and cause of the death that (at least for this draft, and I think possibly for final as well) begins the story and ends the relationship between its main characters.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Horror

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

The Train Children by Mark Early

One of the qualities I enjoy most in this story is the flow.  One sentence leaves me interested in learning more about something, and the next sentence tells me more about that something.  Transitions are provided where necessary, and words are ordered so that sentences often end with a mention of the very things that will be the focus of the next sentence.  That means one sentence leads to the next, pulling me along.  I very rarely get to the start of a new sentence and feel disoriented, puzzled, or jarred.  Flow is a critically important element of stories and one that is often lacking.

The flow of the opening paragraphs draws me into this story, which then allows the content of those paragraphs to gain my interest.  That content is well chosen.  The first paragraph establishes that Pastor Hemmings is new to this church, which makes me wonder how the congregation will feel about him.  The second paragraph establishes a mystery about the congregation:  there are no children.  The third paragraph adds a second mystery:  the church has a “hard time keeping pastors.”  By that point, I’m very interested and eager to keep reading and learn more.

The story within the story, about the children being killed years ago at the train crossing, is haunting and disturbing.  Once I hear that, my questions from the opening paragraphs are answered, but now, to keep me reading, I have a new question:  Will Pastor Hemmings survive?  The story seems to be promising me a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable (qualities every climax should have) answer to this question.

All of that works well.  One area of the story that I think could be improved is the plot.  The current plot moves in too straightforward, expected a manner to the end.  About halfway through, Pastor Hemmings hears the children playing, and we suspect where the story will go.  Unfortunately, it goes right to that expected end without any twists along the way.  This not only lacks suspense and surprise, it also doesn’t allow the protagonist, Pastor Hemmings, to have any power to affect the outcome.  He’s simply a victim.  In my mind, the promise that the story made me in its third paragraph–to provide a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable answer to the question “Will Pastor Hemmings survive?”–has not been fulfilled.

One way to strengthen the plot would be to cut the last paragraph of the story within the story, the paragraph beginning “Those young ‘uns are looking for something . . .”  Most of this paragraph feels repetitive, and as I read I realize that it tells me the ending:  that the children want someone to take them “wherever it is they’re bound to go.”  At that point, I know Pastor Hemmings is going to end up driving the children, which is indeed what happens.

Cutting that paragraph will leave more mystery.  It’s always hard to know how much information the reader needs to understand the story and feel its impact.  Readers can often provide important feedback on this.  In this case, I feel I know all I need to know before reaching this paragraph.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to build up to the climax.  Right now, we go from the opening with the story within the story (which is exposition, background information) to the climax with only two paragraphs of transition between them.  Instead of going from opening to climax, the story could build suspense and increase our attachment to the pastor as we see him struggling to cope with this situation.  For example, he could hear the faint sound of children’s laughter from his office in the church and close the window.  He could look up an old news article about the accident.  He could talk to the parent of one of the children (Della?), expressing his condolences and trying to gather more information.  He could talk to the friend who assigned him to this church and ask what happened to the previous pastors.  He could visit the children’s graves in the cemetery and pray for them, and something weird and threatening could happen.  This would make the pastor more active in trying to deal with this situation.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to use what you’ve previously established.  The character of Cyrus, a survivor of the train accident that killed the children, is prominent at the beginning and then disappears in the second half.  The second half involves only the ghosts of the children and the pastor.  The children want to relive their accident, and the pastor has no power, so this makes for a predictable situation.  If we bring in Cyrus, suddenly the situation is less predictable.

In the first half, Cyrus seems to be keeping an eye on the pastor.  So when the children finally show up, I’m wondering why Cyrus isn’t showing up to help the pastor.  My suggestion is to have Cyrus die of natural causes before the climax.  Before he dies, we can see him clearly watching/protecting the pastor.  His death could help explain why the children, who haven’t appeared before this point, now appear.  Yet the pastor realizes Cyrus–in his child form–is among them.  They have taken him back and want him to be one of them.  Cyrus may want to help the pastor escape.

In addition, though, the pastor needs some ability to have an impact on events.  He can’t just be a powerless victim.  Perhaps he succeeds at freeing himself from Della and has the opportunity to jump out of the car and leave the children to be hit by the train.  Now he’s faced with an internal conflict and a difficult decision:  he can jump out and save himself, or he can stay with the children and try to help them find peace.  Giving the protagonist a difficult decision to make at the climax can raise excitement, suspense, and emotion.  Perhaps the pastor tosses Cyrus from the car and turns the car onto the tracks right in front of the train, so the train pushes them ahead without crashing into them and destroying them, and they are headed now to some new place, the pattern broken.  The pastor might see Cyrus get up beside the tracks, now facing a new life as a child.  That could be an ending that could feel both surprising and inevitable.  The events in the middle of the story would need to show that the pastor is someone who cares about the congregation and about these children, but also has plans for his retirement and looks forward to finally having time for himself.  This will allow us to feel the pastor’s internal conflict at the climax and to understand the price he is paying (giving up his dreams of retirement) by staying in the car to help the children.

One other area I want to briefly mention is point of view.  The third person limited omniscient POV remains fairly distant from the pastor throughout.  Calling him “Pastor Hemmings” creates distance, since he certainly doesn’t think of himself that way.  Instead, he might think of himself by his first name.  Also, sometimes his feelings are described not as he would experience them but as an external narrator would describe them; for example, “an unfamiliar feeling of trepidation growing in his normally serene spirit.”  I think making us feel closer to the pastor could make the story more involving and emotional.

I enjoy many of the elements in the story.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Member News Of Note

Finalists for the 2019 Locus Awards have been announced, and OWW alums are in the running.

C. L. Polk’s novel Witchmark is nominated for the First Novel Award.

Alliette de Bodard’s novella The Tea Master and the Detective is nominated for Best Novella.

Elizabeth Bear’s story “Okay, Glory” is nominated for Best Novelette.

N. K. Jemisin’s stories “Cuisine des Mémoires” and “The Storyteller’s Replacement” are both nominated for Best Short Story.

And N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ’til Black Future’s Month? is nominated for the Collection award.

Winners will be announced during the Locus Awards Weekend in Seattle WA, June 28-30, 2019. Congratulations and best of luck to everyone nominated!

 

Spotlight on Anna Kashina

World building in fantasy and science fiction

 World building is hugely important in any fiction genre. Effective world building enables us to create a setting, in which the reader can relate to the characters not only visually, but also in terms of their own sensory experience. A realistic world is essential for a believable story, and it can make all the difference in engaging the reader. Thus, I tend to think of world building tends as the essential first step when starting out a new book.

Authors of science fiction and fantasy face an additional challenge: we are creating a new world from scratch, building off concepts and settings other people are not familiar with. Of course, this is also additional fun. We have all the power in this brand new world, and we get to set all the rules.

So, why do we need rules anyway?

Any world we know contains boundaries, where some things are common while others are truly impossible. The same goes for any created world too. Rules and boundaries are essential to gain the readers’ trust, and think of your world as a realistic one. Watching the characters constrained by these rules makes them much easier to relate to. Without rules, the reader would not be able to develop any expectations following the events in the book. This creates an ungrounded feeling that ultimately prevents the reader from getting emotionally and intellectually invested.

As a fantasy author, I spend a lot of time building my worlds, and I have developed a process that helps me along. It can be tedious at times, but most of the time, it is so much fun.

When I approach the task of building a world, I follow several essential steps. As soon as the idea of a novel is in my head – definitely before I start working on the bulk of the text — I think through the following list of action items, in this order:

  1. The world map. This first step is actually also my very first decision. Is the whole story going to take place in a small village, a city, a country, or a single room? Are my characters going to travel around, and if yes, how far? Are they going to meet visitors coming over from distant lands? Are they going to stay confined and isolated?

 Some of these details can be left for later, but this major decision about the scale of the world has to come right at the start. In my case, I follow this decision by sketching a very crude map, and as I work through my story I continue to populate it with places, names, and key elements of the landscape. I am not an artist, so these initial sketches always look horrible, but they do help.

In everyday life, we use a lot of geographical references in our speech, without even noticing them. “Up north”, “back east”, “over in Cleveland”, “back in Russia”, “in Challimar deserts” – these are very telling details about the world and the characters that people tend to drop into their conversations, and if I have a map with geographical names in front of me when I write, it allows me to populate my characters speech with these references from early on. It really helps to make the world more authentic.

  1. The society. This follows my work on the map, so that the two become closely inter-related. I have a another check list for my work on the society, interrogating it through the following set of big-picture questions:
  • What is this society’s overall level of development? Medieval, Victorian, futuristic, alien? This decision is usually easy, and it is also key in defining the next level of details. In my case, I tend to settle on medieval, before the invention of the firearms, which allows me to devote a lot of attention to the finesse of the blade fights J.
  • What technology is available? Firelight or electricity? Cars, steam engines, horses or spaceships? Guns, swords, or laser blasters? This list can go on, but the major questions like energy sources, transportation, and weaponry, tend to come first. My list is normally fire, horses, and swords, but there could be some cool variations here.
  • What type of housing is typical? Castles? Tents? Apartment buildings? Spaceships? Hives? It could be different for different nations in my world, but it is good here to understand the range.
  • How did this society originate? Are these human settlers on another planet where the traveled from Earth? Is this one of the ancient civilizations that has been here for thousands of years? Are these conquerors that settled here by defeating the locals? Are they a small group of survivors after a major cataclysm?
  • What is the societal hierarchy? Is it a kingdom, a religious order, an oppressed mass under an alien tyrant, or a democratic republic? Again, this could be different for different parts of the world.
  • What is the family structure – if different from ours? Well, I usually include elements of romance into my stories, so I tend to stick to traditional families (and, occasionally harems), but this is something I can definitely imagine playing with at some point.
  1. Elements of everyday life. These, in my initial list, include overall appearance of the characters, clothes, types of housing, common household items, tools and weaponry. And of course, food. The possibilities of food-based world building are endless. In my case, I tend to develop an entire recipe book for each world, even though only a few of these dishes are actually mentioned in the book. Once can tell a lot by what people eat.

 Going deeper into this, I usually also think through the languages people speak. In a multicultural world it is often helpful for everyone to speak some sort of a common language, but it is also fun to give language flavors to different groups of people — e.g., an accent, or differences in pronunciation. These are great details that can add authenticity to the story – but they should be used very lightly. If not, they can easily overwhelm the readers.

  1. In every land, people have certain beliefs – or had at some point. These beliefs tend to factor not only into lifestyles and moral values, but also into speech and customs. (e.g., we all tend to say “my God” even if we are atheists). Curses and swear words are actually very important to the story, and can also be a great tool in characterization and creating some vivid personality traits. Most authors choose to use commonly known curses, but they need to be defined upfront. Some of my characters tend to swear a lot, so I settle on the swear words very early on.

I find it useful to utilize known concepts and elements. For example, a lot of my worlds have Middle Eastern elements, because these fascinate me and I really enjoy writing about them. I also freely draw from my Russian background. Using some obvious elements from known cultures often helps to ground the reader, by drawing on the details they already know. Too much unfamiliar can be off-putting and detract from the story. But it is, of course, very cool if you can come up with something truly original!

In the end, the process of world building in science fiction and fantasy can have a lot of similarities with the process of doing research for a historical novel – except that in science fiction and fantasy, the author is the one to set all the rules.

Only after this initial work do I feel ready to work on the bulk of the main text. But my world building does not end until the book is complete. As I write, I continue to interrogate each setting and each scene for additional details that can help further define the world.

And here is the hardest part. Having gone through all this work of creating a brand new, incredibly cool world I know everything about, the temptation is to tell the readers as much as I know, as soon as possible. How much should I put on the page? How much do I leave unsaid?

In deciding these things, it helps me to remember that any story is first and foremost about characters. In thinking of how much detail to put into the book, I get into my character’s head and try to see the world through their eyes. Even if the world they live in is new and cool to me, it is usually very familiar to them, and the details they would notice first are not necessarily the ones that would stick out to someone seeing this world for the first time. It becomes lots of fun to identify these details, and showing them actually does volumes to highlighting the background that is not explicitly shown at all.

The golden rules I go by here are: “Less is more”, and “Show, don’t tell”.

I took the liberty of including the opening paragraphs of my new novel SHADOWBLADE, which can show examples of some of my world building:

Gassan heard the shouting from all the way down the narrow stone passageway leading to the entrance of the serai. A woman, her voice raising to a near-scream and eventually dissolving into sobs. He broke into a run, noting in passing the slanted crescent of the waning moon peeking in through the narrow window overhead. Not the average hour to expect visitors in the Daljeer command center, disguised as a scholarly hall.

The door at the end of the curving passage stood ajar. Gusts of cool night air washed through the entrance hallway, filling it with the scents of desert rosemary and creosote. As Gassan skidded around the last bend, he caught a view of the moonlit path outside, winding to the city down below. Dark shapes loomed along it, outlined against the white sand. Boulders? Odd. Just yesterday, when he arrived here from the empire’s capital for the celebration of the Sun Festival, the path had been clear. He peered closer, a chill creeping down his spine as the objects began to take shape.

Bodies. Dear Sel.

About the author: 

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her “Majat Code” series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, SHADOWBLADE, is upcoming from Angry Robot Books in May, 2019.

You can learn more about Anna at her blog:

https://annakashinablog.wordpress.com/

 

 SHADOWBLADE:

 

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

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

Collapse Noise by Kate Ellis

“Collapse Noise” caught my attention this month with its precise, chilling prose; the way it pairs a tour through an NPD relationship, beginning to end, with the observer effect, Henry James, and thriller novels; and the way it deftly slides through three subgenres, muddying its trail through each of them—and all to reinforce the story it’s telling. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonance: what we achieve when we make multiple elements of a story sing together.

It’s appropriate for this story, I think, that “Collapse Noise” delicately and deliberately spends time muddying its own standing, in terms of subgenre. It transforms from a very specific subgenre of realist fiction—a tonal anatomy of a relationship, and through it, comment on something wider—to hard SF, to broad hints that this is horror fiction, and ultimately is structured like a thriller: on a third read, the “‘Sounds like you’re trying to catch someone out,’ you said” line is a howl-worthy clue. There is a great deal of work being done in a very short space in this draft, and not just on the genre level; the opening image of Narcissus is surprising, pragmatic, funny, and a little vicious, and establishes the narrative voice and the story’s tone instantly. The clues as to the partner’s nature pop out, thoroughly visible, in the rearview, and they’re blackly hilarious while still offering a chill.

It’s highly efficient work, and it’s resonant work: every piece of the construction is giving a clue, like the Carol Dean comment, on how to read this story, right now.

The prose is also in a great state for what’s marked as an early draft: it’s well-crafted but transparent enough that an intricate story stays quite readable. Lines like “class snobbery ground down to silicate” drop like elaborate icicles into the text, not detracting, just exquisite.

The piece also demonstrates a great eye for telling details, and ones that don’t just sit on the page but group to form motifs. The “gnawed finger nails, split-ends, and a burned out vibrator in a shoebox under the bed” line doesn’t just hit three solid, specific concrete details, but builds each one off the other—here are three kinds of dry, split, broken things, creating a resonance between them—to apply a deeper, more specific, and wryer metaphor to the protagonist’s state of mind. It’s a perfect analogy for the adding-up of details the protagonist does: three small things that themselves are nothing, but together are something big. Again, the text is teaching readers how to read it, how to catch on, while it’s already in flight.

It’s that resonance that ultimately feels like the key to “Collapse Noise”: the way each event on the plot layer is about both relationship and experiment, alive cat and dead cat—more like one light beam seen through two prisms than an actual bifurcation—until the effect is of one unified, urgent, consuming, tantalizing mystery. “Collapse Noise” is one thing, but visibly slides puzzle pieces between each version of the thing it’s being—between the literalism of a science fiction story about physics and the metaphoricness of a literary story about relationships, and then layers in more iterations with Turn of the Screw, thriller novels, the second-date horror movie—until it just reinforces both things it’s about: quantum physics and narcissistic gaslighting. It ultimately, slippery and clockwork, feels like both.

But what clinched this story’s effectiveness for me was that it is not just a deeply cleverly constructed puzzle, it’s one to which the answer is both relevant and urgent. It’s a plausible failure mode for short fiction to construct our puzzles well, and forget that there has to be an emotional weight to the answer, but “Collapse Noise” has asked a hard emotional question, and posits a real answer by its echoing analogies to the observer effect: “Some people think you can’t answer questions about what you can’t see […] just stop worrying and do the math.”

Because of the difficulty of the real-world questions it’s tackling—physics and gaslighting both—the complexity of “Collapse Noise” doesn’t feel put-upon or artificial, but appropriate. This is hard. The form of tackling it, narratively, will be hard too. It’s another resonance between form and content that makes this story work.

I do have some small suggestions for a next draft. I’d clarify the “‘Corral is going to shit,’ I say” line, personally—the supervisor hasn’t been mentioned before, and since “going to shit” is readable as something going down the tubes or so on, the sentence muddied for me considerably.

Likewise, I’d introduce a touch more clarity into the final paragraphs: not a total fixity, but just one more clue. There’s a state of suspense throughout that drives my readerly engagement, but I’m personally feeling the need for a touch more payoff to bring that down.

On the whole, though, this is smart, emotionally relevant, well-constructed, and ultimately passes the best test of a literary story or a thriller: it is rereadable, and delivers more depth and context and satisfaction after the first read. I think that with a little polish, this is set to find itself a good home.

Best of luck!

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

 

On The Shelves

The Red Stained Wings: Lotus Kingdoms, Book 2 by Elizabeth Bear (Tor Books May, 2019)  

Hugo Award–winning author Elizabeth Bear returns to the epic fantasy world of the Lotus Kingdoms with The Red-Stained Wings, the sequel to The Stone in the Skull, taking the Gage into desert lands under a deadly sky to answer the riddle of the Stone in the Skull.

The Gage and the Dead Man brought a message from the greatest wizard of Messaline to the ruling queen of Sarathai, one of the Lotus Kingdoms. But the message was a riddle, and the Lotus Kingdoms are at war.

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina (Angry Robot May, 2019)

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

Editor’s Choice Award April 2019, Fantasy

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

Herald Of Dawn Chapter 1 by Lucrezia Cenzatti

Writing a novel is hard, and in many ways the beginning is the hardest. The author has to set up the action, block out the setting, and introduce the characters. She also has to send the right genre signals to the reader. If those don’t hit the proper notes, the reader will leave.

Novels that fall between two or more genres face additional challenges. What works for one may not work for the other, and readers who come in with one set of expectations may not be happy to be presented with a different one. The author has to do her best to win them over, and to keep them reading.

When I made this Editor’s Choice selection, I accepted the author’s invitation to get in touch directly. I’m glad I did, because I was able to see several versions of this opening chapter. The submission we have here is the result of more than one round of workshopping, and it’s an intriguing combination of genres: urban fantasy with epic elements.

That is indeed a challenge. Urban fantasy tends to be fast-paced and contemporary, with a sharp, often snarky voice. Epic by contrast is big, scopey, relatively leisurely, and in general quite serious, though there may be moments of comic relief.

Readers who read the earlier drafts of this novel had questions about the genre signals. It wasn’t hitting enough urban fantasy notes, and the setting wasn’t well enough grounded for the genre.

This is the original opening:

For nine years, nine months and nine days, I went to bed and dreamt of Gabriel dying. A fitting punishment for the role I played in the death of my sodalis.

Nine years, nine months and nine days. A perfect cycle, according to mage traditions. After Gabriel died, I had walked away from magic, but its laws still bound me.

After nine years, nine months and nine days, I fell asleep, and I did not dream.

Quite different from the version on the site now, much sparer and less explicit about where and when. In its place we have a quick, witty line of dialogue, a careful structure of setting and backstory, and a scene that balances dream-logic, lush description, and sharply contemporary conversation.

There’s no question that this writer can write. The particular combination of elements—modern fantasy and Classical myth and legend, with special bonus Venice (one of my favorite cities in the world)—predisposes me to love it, and in both what it is and what it promises to deliver, I really rather do.

Since I am wearing my editor hat, and since I have also fought in the cross-genre wars, I have some thoughts about the submission as it appears on this site. There is another, later version, and I believe it works better while also being explicitly urban fantasy, but for this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about two versions we have here. One works better for me than the other, even though it’s not strictly following the “rules” of its primary genre.

The revised chapter is a sort of intermediary draft, what I might call Author’s Notes to Self. Exposition to the fore, with a number of experiments in voice—literally in the aunt’s lively aphorism and the child/Fortuna’s acerbic observations, but also in both the richness of description and the flatness of the expository passages. Overall it falls more on the side of synopsis than dramatized narrative, with everything spelled out up front, and no ambiguity about who the protagonist is or where she comes from.

That’s a perfectly acceptable way to write a draft. It answers the readers’ questions. It makes it clear the genre is urban fantasy. It pulls in the Classical underpinnings of this magic-rich world, and sets up who and what the narrator is.

It also prevents the story from starting. There’s a lot of information to process, a lot of background to absorb, before the reader has a chance to get to know the characters. Emotionally it’s rather dry and analytical. There’s wonderful story-stuff here, but it’s told in an almost academic voice.

I personally prefer the original opening, with its mysteries and ambiguities. It tells me just enough to keep me reading, and is well enough written that even so early, I find myself trusting the author to answer my questions. It’s powerful and poignant, and it has the strength of an incantation.

If I were to choose between them, I’d pick the earlier draft. The intermediate draft, emotionally and stylistically, is very nearly its diametrical opposite. The earlier version is not signaling urban fantasy, no, but there’s time to do that in the next scene or chapter. I would be happy with these lines as a prologue or a prelude, and then a shift to the main thrust of the story, with less exposition and more revelation through character action and interaction.

Mixing genres is a balancing act. Between the two versions we can see here, I could see starting with the near-poetry of the dream, then shifting to the bright light of the contemporary world. That might even become a narrative technique, shifting from one to the other, keeping a rhythm that defines the novel. Dream life, waking life. Past life, contemporary life. The distinction is already present in Ada’s estrangement from her family, and in her involuntary servitude to Fortuna. Two worlds, two lives, two narrative voices.

Whatever the author decides to do, I’d like to add one last rather contrarian observation, which is that the rules of writing—including the rules of genre signaling—are never actually set in stone. Certain conventions do apply, but if the author knows them well, understands them deeply, and makes a conscious decision to bend or break them, she may be able to get away with it. Yes, if an agent or publisher says Do Not Do This, you’re wise to follow instructions. But in general? Go with your author’s instinct. Do what works for your story.

This is especially true for work that crosses genres. Sometimes you can combine the rules and conventions, or you can find a workable compromise. Other times, you may have to make your own. If you do it well enough, and win over enough readers, you may find that you’ve created a new subgenre.

After all, what we think of now as urban fantasy grew out of other subgenres before it, accreted rules and conventions and became an established genre. Before it was its own thing, authors who wrote that way were “doing it wrong,” too—until others followed their example, and their way became the right way.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 2019, Science Fiction

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

So Far From Home Chapter 7 by L. K. Pinaire

This submission has a lot of good things going on. The variety of aliens, the thought that’s gone into depicting their physiology and psychology as well as the human protagonist’s interactions with them, the acknowledgment that they all speak different languages and there’s no easy out via a universal translator. At the same time they find common ground through human cultural references, notably poker and sex workers.

I might ask whether alien species would necessarily be binary, or whether they would be inclined to buy and sell their reproductive rituals and if so whether it would be the females who were sold, but since this is a single chapter of a much longer work, it’s possible that question has been answered elsewhere. Here I’ll focus on the prose and the execution, on the way the chapter reads, and what I think might help it read more smoothly and clearly.

Often when we’re writing a draft, we get focused on what’s right in front of us, word by word and sentence by sentence. Human memory being what it is, especially if we’re writing in fits and spurts around our daily lives, we forget what we just said, even while we retain an overall idea of what we’re trying to say. It’s pretty common for a draft to pop up with word and phrase echoes—verbatim or near-verbatim repetitions within a sentence or two. This is a good example:

Ashee frowned and looked across the table. “Are we playing cards or talking?”

I dealt the next hand and looked around the table.

The word looked is a frequent flyer in this chapter. Characters do a lot of looking. When it comes time for the final polish, it might be worthwhile to think about varying not just the word but the action itself. What other things can characters do as they interact with each other and their surroundings?

Watch for odd images and visualizations that make the reader stop and back up:

The diminutive Dweller’s long scraggly hair hid his dark skin, pronounced forehead, bulging frogeyes, and high cheekbones.

That’s a lot of territory for scraggly hair to cover. Wouldn’t his skin color be visible elsewhere than his face? Can he see through his hair? Is it really important for us to know the exact details of his features, since they supposedly aren’t visible?

A little bit later,

Ashee pursed his lips under his bulbous eyes, like someone suppressing a grin.

Are his lips directly below his eyes? No nose or other facial features between them?

There’s some awkward phrasing, too, that could be smoothed and clarified in revision.

Facing forward, he turned his eyes back like a frog and might have been looking at the ceiling behind him.

It took me a minute to parse the sentence and figure out what he’s doing. Breaking up the clauses and separating the different actions into their own sentence-space might make the meaning clearer.

Here’s another sentence that made me stop and reread:

A sly smile worked its way from his tiny lips, forcing the corners upward.

I’m not quite sure about the logistics of the smile. It almost seems to exist independently of his lips—like the stet, which is a fascinating concept.

It is rather awkwardly described as his other half, the opaque, apparition-like portion of him, and the name has some odd resonances for editors and proofreaders, since it’s the word we use to refuse an editor’s change. It means “let it stand.” Is that intentional?

In any case that’s not the only action or reaction that seems to have independent existence:

He gave me a matter-of-fact expression

as if a facial expression were a solid object that could be given by one person to another. In the context of the stet it almost makes sense.

The habit of stating what a thing is, comma, then defining it makes for somewhat uneven, choppy reading.

Tiem stood and raised his grippers, the ones that were his equivalents of hands

might read more smoothly if it were tightened into something like raised his hand-like grippers.

Overall, the pacing of the chapter could be quicker. The poker game as a way of sharing a human cultural phenomenon and bonding with the disparate members of the crew is a good idea. With tightening and focus, smoothing and clarifying the prose, it could become a great one.

One thing to look for in revision is the way characters repeat the same actions and reactions in between chunks of exposition, often in the form of dialogue. Character asks a leading question, other character Explains Stuff.

Some spoken explanations can work well, but even a little too much can turn a conversation into a lecture. When that happens, the plot stalls. Shorter, more concise explanations and even a quick line or two of straight narrative containing the details that the reader needs to know at this particular point, can help get the story moving again, and moving along more briskly, too.

Another reliable plot-mover is variety. While a poker game does consist of a lot of repeated activity, in revision it can be useful to pick out different details in each repetition. That way the reader gets a more rounded, varied view of what’s going on. Think of it as changing the camera angle within the scene, showing different sides of the action.

There’s a lot of potential here, and some good ideas and worldbuilding. Best of luck, and happy revising!
–Judith Tarr