Publication News

Bradley Beaulieu wants to tell everyone some great news: “Today I’m pleased to announce that Absynthe, a novel set in a reimagined Roaring Twenties Chicago, has sold to DAW Books. Absynthe is a standalone novel, but I hope to write more in this world. More on this, obviously, as we work on proper cover copy, covers, and more. The plan is to have this out in the fall of 2020. Which means I need to get cracking on finishing up the manuscript!”

Huge congratulations, Brad!

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Bait by Christopher Ivey

This story really draws me in by suggesting more than it explicitly states.  Implying or suggesting significant pieces of information is a key method of engaging readers.  This allows readers to be active participants in the story, and if done properly, it allows readers to enjoy the pleasure of figuring things out and tying them together.  The story does this several times in the opening paragraphs.

The first line, “Anton chose a knife not knowing the kind of meat it had once cut,” suggests many things:   that this story will be about cutting meat, that the type of meat being used may be mysterious or strange, that Anton will be using this knife for something important (which creates suspense), and that Anton is not knowledgeable about knives and butchering.  All of these things turn out to be true, which is good.  Sometimes authors imply or suggest things without realizing it, and those things send the reader down the wrong path, creating confusion and frustration.

Another example is in paragraph 7:  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm.”  This implies that Anton’s father doesn’t have a left arm.  While that doesn’t require a lot of mental work on the part of readers, it avoids a common and serious problem:  having the point of view character think a fact he already knows.  Here’s the usual way an author might convey this same idea:  “Anton’s father had lost his left arm.”  But since we’re in Anton’s point of view, he’s not going to think this.  He’s not going to tell himself something he already knows.  I call this type of statement an “as you know, self.”  The way to avoid the “as you know, self,” is to have the POV character think a reaction or opinion about the fact, rather than just thinking the fact.  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm” is Anton’s reaction to the fact.

One final example, and perhaps the strongest one, is in that same paragraph:  “Anton couldn’t picture [his father] in a place like this, with its clean surfaces and bright lights.  In filth and darkness:  that was where Father lived.”  This sentence not only suggests the setting, which hasn’t been previously described, it also implies a lot about Anton’s father and about Anton’s attitude toward his father.

While I really like the way the story engages me through this technique, I think the story could be improved in several ways.

The plot reveals several facts, but the revelations are not set up well, so they don’t carry the impact they might.  Scene 2 reveals that Mr. Sokolov has been making a living by selling the meat of supernatural creatures to high-paying customers.  This would work better if Scene 1 established that there was some mystery about the animals that Mr. Sokolov butchers, or about how Mr. Sokolov stays in business.  While there’s a little hint about the meat, as I mentioned above, it’s not enough to establish that this is a mystery.  The only meat described in Scene 1 is pork.  If there was another piece of meat that Anton couldn’t identify, or if Anton asked where the animals are held before butchering, that could establish the mystery.  If the mystery is established in Scene 1, then when the information is revealed in Scene 2, it will feel right, because it will answer the questions raised earlier.  Right now, it kind of comes out of the blue, and readers have to retroactively create a mystery that these new facts can explain.  Setting up the mystery would also reduce the need for Mr. Sokolov to explain the whole situation in Scene 2, which comes off as a villain monologuing his evil plan.  The less he can say and still reveal the truth, the better.  And if Anton has noticed this mystery earlier, he may be able to figure some of it out on his own, so we won’t need so much explanation from Mr. Sokolov.

Similarly, Scenes 2 and 3 seem to indicate that Anton’s father killed Anton’s mother.  But the story never established that there was any mystery about how Anton’s mother died.  So again, the information seems to come out of the blue, and it doesn’t feel right or inevitable because we had no idea that there was any question about how the mother died.  If that was set up earlier, so we had that question in our heads, then the answer would be much more satisfying .

Another area I’d like to discuss is the point of view.  Since we’re in Anton’s third person limited point of view, calling Mr. Sokolov “Mr. Sokolov” rather than “Gleb” definitely feels more appropriate.  Anton seems fairly young, so I think that is how Anton would think of him.  In other places, though, the POV seems to drift out of Anton’s head.  In some places, the voice seems to belong to someone much older, such as here:  “If Dr. Pankrat had any opinion on the matter, he didn’t express it.  He finished his work and left without further comment.”  This doesn’t sound like it’s coming from Anton.  It sounds sophisticated and adult.  In other places, the POV feels distant from Anton, as if an omniscient narrator is conveying what Anton is experiencing.  The description of Anton being hit on the head is one example:  “the pain in his skull imparted the awful truth.”  This seems both too sophisticated and too distant to be coming from Anton.  In other places, Anton’s emotions didn’t come through as powerfully as they might have.  For example, “Anton strained against the ropes that bound him to the chair.  No use.  Too tight.  Panic took hold of him” tells us Anton’s emotion through an emotional label (panic) rather than showing us Anton’s emotions.  I think Anton needs to struggle much more against the ropes before deciding that it won’t work.  Also, the struggling could be described more specifically.  Is he trying to break the ropes?  Slip out of the ropes?  Pull at the knot fastening the rope?  What kind of rope is it?  This struggle needs to be dilated (described in detail to expand and stretch out this short segment in time) to provide greater intensity.

A point related to POV is how direct thoughts are used in the story.  For me, the story has too many direct thoughts, and they’re often introduced abruptly, jarring me.  My suggestion would be to change most of the direct thoughts to indirect thoughts, so they flow better with the rest of the text.

The final area I’d like to cover is flow.  There are some places where the sentences don’t flow, and that makes me stumble in my reading and get thrown out of the story.  One basic principle of flow is to create expectations in one sentence that are satisfied by the next sentence.  These two sentences lack that flow:  “Most of these cryptic marks were unfamiliar, but there was one that Anton knew he had seen before.  Few of the symbols reminded Anton of other things.”  The first sentence clearly makes us expect the following sentence will discuss the one symbol that Anton had seen before.  Yet the next sentence doesn’t do that.  So the flow is disrupted.

Another example of disrupted flow is here:  “Anton did as he was told and stood watching his blood marinade the pork while Mr. Sokolov found gauze.  His pulse pounded in his temples.”  The first sentence leaves me with a focus on Mr. Sokolov, so I’m expecting the next sentence to involve Mr. Sokolov and the gauze.  Yet the next sentence shifts the focus back to Anton and takes us inside Anton.  That’s a jarring break in the flow.  Once you start looking at your sentences for flow, these issues aren’t hard to fix.  I wrote a blog post recently on this topic, “Uncovering the Mysteries of Narrative Flow in the Opening of Stephen King’s 11/22/63,” which you can find here:

I was really drawn in by the story and enjoyed the originality of the situation.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Grapevine/Market News

The Speculative Literature Foundation is accepting applications through March 31st for its annual Older Writer’s Grant. Each year they award two $500 grants to assist writers over the age of 50. Full details on how to apply are here.

Translunar Travelers Lounge is looking for fun stories of up to 5,000 words. A fun story as defined by the editors, is one that works on the premise that things aren’t that bad, and that in the end, good will win. Payment is a semi-pro rate of 3 cents per word, and the submissions window closes on April 15th. Full details are here. 

Visions is open to submissions for their second issue from now until May 15, 2019. They are looking for stories up to 3,000 words and the theme for the second issue is humanity. Payment is 6 cents per word. Full details are here.

Writing Challenge/Prompt

First lines can be the most important part of a story. A first line can set up a story, draw in a reader, make you curious. Some starts to first lines get used again and again–“Once upon a time…” or “Long ago…”–because they work, accomplish all of those things and more, and can apply to any genre. The way you finish that sentence is the key.

Use this first line for this month’s challenge, or you can think of your own variation:

Long ago, no one knew the world was flat.

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)

Publication News

Gregor Hartmann wrote to share some great news: “I have a story in the March/April issue of F&SF. “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” is about a homicide inspector investigating a case that involves cryptocurrencies on Zephyr. Thanks again to Lee Melling, William Delman, Richard Keelan, Dylan McFadyen, and Henry Szabranski, who critiqued it at OWW in July 2017.”

Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, Short Story

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

In The Darkness, Defending The Wall by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” caught my attention this month with its clean rendering of an average dystopian day, done in quick lines—and how it manages to complicate and stretch its world off the page though the use of small details. It’s a simple, tidy, tonal piece, but one which might well trip itself up on its own worldbuilding. So this month, I’d like to talk about message stories, flash stories, and how working with assumption makes them both work and falter.

“In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t aiming for subtle, and doesn’t reach it: it’s pretty clearly an indictment of current American policy and attitudes, an if-this-goes-on. It makes several smart choices at the outset, the biggest of which is to keep it short. As has come up in prior Editor’s Choice months, there’s a tricky readability balance to walk with fiction that’s directly built to criticize an attitude or policy. Under 1500 words is a good length for this kind of message piece: long enough to make an impact, but short enough to not overstay its welcome.

Leaning into the dense worldbuilding that word limit necessitates is the second smart choice. The grim near-future of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” is on from the second line: flickering lightbulbs, fake IDs, and hostility, and all of it packed into sentences that also advance the plot. The story snaps to life so fast because Stacey’s aggrieved nastiness carries worldbuilding information and creates the conflict—will she or won’t she let them access medical care?—while fairly clean, direct sentences move the story perpetually forward.

But what really made this piece work for me is the sense, scattered like breadcrumbs all the way through, of systems that are flickering and breaking; of Stacey’s stress and frustration and ungenerosity being fed constantly by living in that wreckage. This is a future where epidemics are common, the infrastructure doesn’t work, and soda’s a luxury, and Stacey is surviving by clinging to the rules. The constant sense of precarity, of things about to shatter, complicates Stacey’s own character just enough, away from what the Strange Horizons submission guidelines used to call a Bad Man Gets Punished story. Instead, we’re seeing the tip of an iceberg of systems, and it deepens the questions at the heart of the piece.

I also appreciate that “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” isn’t prescribing a grand solution to the problems it poses. It merely lays out the problems. This isn’t a conversion narrative—Stacey is basically back to her usual attitudes by the end of the piece—and it doesn’t feel as if it’s staring through the fourth wall, demanding a certain action of readers. It merely portrays, and lets readers draw their own conclusions.

All that combines to make “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” deeply effective, but the major place I hesitate is at the ploy of two women kissing to somehow gain Stacey’s sympathy. Even if the implication at the end of the piece is true—that they are coyotes and know about Donna, and were targeting her with that knowledge—the society that’s been constructed here is one that’s institutionally homophobic to the point of state-sanctioned exile (and off-the-books murder). I’m not sure how this would be a safe ploy for the two women: they’re more likely to be arrested, beaten to death, or both than to walk out of the hospital safely with medical care.

In that one plot point, there’s an odd assumption of how bigotry impacts people: that it’s abstract, or somehow a game overlaid on top of a “regular” set of social rules. That there’s nobody else in this room to create consequences, or enforce that social norm. That there’s a hierarchy of difference: minority attributes that will somehow, even in an oppressive state, be looked at as the Nice Ones Which Get You Pity. That, at the end of the day people will play fair and engage tolerance instead of exiling—the stated penalty—or murdering these characters in cold blood.

That unrealism shows again in having the characters be Mexican, but in Florida, but still potentially coyotes illegally crossing a border that’s got mud and pine needles nearby. It’s not geographically possible or probable. It’s the kind of detail that, if even looked at strongly, falls apart completely.

What makes other parts of “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” work is what sabotages it here: shorthanding to symbols that the author can be sure readers already have in their heads in order to build information quickly, without expending wordcount or story space. While that works well with the flickering power grid, the assumption that an immigration wall means the Mexican border and a fence completely undermines what might actually happen here. The assumption that it is at all safe for a lesbian couple to out themselves so extravagantly in a state where, the story itself says, people are beaten to death or exiled for homosexuality does the same sabotage.

I recognize this could be a small point, and it’s one that’s supposed to illuminate the targeting and profiling the women have done in advance. But the problem here is that the effects of our assumptions don’t just live on the page. We’re in speculative fiction; realism about our worlds and technologies is optional. But realism about the experiences and obstacles people face is crucial, because those people are our readers, and the shorthands and archetypes we put on a page have a real effect on their real lives. There are elements of craft that when we shorthand, we can do harm.

I think these are issues that can be addressed without too much work: a little research on a more plausible country of origin for Pedro and his mother, a more plausible route or tell that they might have crossed a border recently. A little thought put into what that hinge, that profiling sign might be. With work and some thought about how it might be read in the context of readers’ day-to-day lives, “In the Darkness, Defending the Wall” will quite plausibly hit all the notes it aimed to—and stop hitting ones it didn’t.

Best of luck!

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

On The Shelves

Ancestral Night (White Space) by Elizabeth Bear (Saga Press March, 2019)

A space salvager and her partner make the discovery of a lifetime that just might change the universe in this wild, big-ideas space opera from multi award-winning author Elizabeth Bear.

Halmey Dz and her partner Connla Kurucz are salvage operators, living just on the inside of the law…usually. Theirs is the perilous and marginal existence—with barely enough chance of striking it fantastically big—just once—to keep them coming back for more. They pilot their tiny ship into the scars left by unsuccessful White Transitions, searching for the relics of lost human and alien vessels. But when they make a shocking discovery about an alien species that has been long thought dead, it may be the thing that could tip the perilous peace mankind has found into full-out war.

A Veil of Spears (Song of Shattered Sands) by Bradley P. Beaulieu (DAW March, 2019) 

Since the Night of Endless Swords, a bloody battle the Kings of Sharakhai narrowly won, the kings have been hounding the rebels known as the Moonless Host. Many have been forced to flee the city, including Çeda, who discovers that the King of Sloth is raising his army to challenge the other kings’ rule.When Çeda finds the remaining members of the Moonless Host, now known as the thirteenth tribe, she sees a tenuous existence. Çeda hatches a plan to return to Sharakhai and free the asirim, the kings’ powerful, immortal slaves. The kings, however, have sent their greatest tactician, the King of Swords, to bring Çeda to justice for her crimes.

But the once-unified front of the kings is crumbling. The surviving kings vie quietly against one another, maneuvering for control over Sharakhai. Çeda hopes to use that to her advantage, but whom to trust? Any of them might betray her. As Çeda works to lift the shackles from the asirim and save the thirteenth tribe, the kings of Sharakhai, the scheming queen of Qaimir, the ruthless blood mage, Hamzakiir, and King of Swords all prepare for a grand clash that may decide the fate of all.

 Dragonfell by Sarah Prineas (Harper Collins March, 2019) 

Rafi Bywater is unlike anyone else. The people in his village don’t trust him because he spends too much time in an abandoned dragon lair. When a stranger, Mister Flitch, accuses Rafi of being “dragon-touched,” Rafi sets off to discover the truth about dragons—and about himself.

On his journey, Rafi befriends a brilliant scientist, Maud, who has secrets of her own. Together they search for dragons while escaping from a dangerous dragon hunter, engaging in a steam-engine car chase, and figuring out what Mister Flitch really wants with Rafi. And, oh yes, they do find the dragons.

Sarah Prineas delivers a sweeping adventure filled with glorious dragons of all kinds!

Editor’s Choice Award February 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.

The Broken Vessel Chapter 1 by Ravenna Corvin

Usually when I read an unfinished ms., I recommend that the author finish it before worrying about line edits. So much can change between the first draft and the final, and fixing lines and words can take up time that might be spent working on larger structural issues. It’s all too tempting to spin the wheels forever in the first few pages, and never quite make it past them.

That being said, when I made this Editor’s Choice selection I knew I’d be looking at the line-by-line. When we read a chapter at a time, that’s the most obvious thing we can address; the larger structure is harder to extrapolate. Therefore I’m going to issue my Standard Disclaimer: There is no wrong way to write a first draft, however you get the words down is just fine, and don’t worry about the finer points until you have the whole thing in front of you in whatever form it needs to take. What I say here is by way of “keep this in reserve for later” and “worry about it after you’ve completed the draft.”

I chose this submission for this month’s Fantasy Chapter Editor’s Choice because as much as it may need copyedits and polish, it’s got great bones. It presents a world both rich and strange, a set of characters I would be interested to hear more about, and the promise of a plot that will unfold through intriguing twists and turns. I want to know who the protagonist really is, what secret she’s hiding, and where the developments of this chapter will take each of the people we meet. I’m particularly taken with the rule of signs—that only the royal family can speak aloud. The signs themselves are vividly imagined; I can see them in my mind as they’re described.

All of these lovely elements will be even stronger with a solid copyedit and some careful proofreading. The draft shows signs of what will be with figurative language that occasionally sings: Voices, Ilph’s invisible companions, whispered in her mind — restless, paranoid, spiteful.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here:

Back straight, chin raised, eyes piercing, Emperor Tigal floated over the Polis as though hovering.

Floating and hovering are more or less similes. Perhaps just say he’s hovering? Or floating?

Words get out of control here and there. She’d more likely clutch the neck of her robe than the neckline; black eyeliner is spelled kohl rather than coalThe surrogate he used in favor of giving her a name seems to mean something like “the sobriquet he used instead of a proper name.” I’m a bit confused by the saliva that turns into a viscous paste. Usually in that emotional state, my mouth dries out and I can’t generate any saliva at all. Or, as happens with Ilph, I’ll choke on bile. Here too, when ire marked his face, a sort of leashed frustration, the connotations aren’t quite on point. Ire is anger; it’s not particularly controlled or leashed, and it’s a different and stronger emotion than frustration.

Sometimes it’s useful in the final copyediting pass to take a sentence apart and make sure the different sections connect in the ways they’re meant to. In this passage

Long metal spikes stabbed through the woman’s arms, legs, hands, and shoulders to keep her suspended.

I had to read through a couple of times to connect the spikes and the suspension; it might have been clearer if the sentence had read something like, “The woman hung suspended from long metal spikes that stabbed through her arms, legs, hands, and shoulders.”

When she drove her mouth into an apathetic line, the concepts didn’t quite mesh for me. Apathy is limp, passive. Driving is a little too strong, and not exactly apposite. Perhaps a less vehemently active verb here—flattened, perhaps, or compressed.

I’m not sure about the visual of His forehead wrinkled, the lines coming to a head between his eyebrows. It’s very precise, and it repeats later, so seems to carry some significance, but whatever that is needs to be made clearer. Or just say he frowned? That seems to be what he’s doing. (There’s a tendency of late to misplace the frown to the mouth. It’s actually a forehead gesture, and the sentence quoted here describes it.)

I’m a little bemused by the repeated image of a character shifting weight between his feet. It reads as if he’s built like a bird with very short legs and a proportionally large body that essentially sits on top of his feet. Presuming that he has human proportions, is he shifting his weight from foot to foot, sort of bouncing back and forth?

In a fantasy as atmospheric as this one, with such strong emotional ebb and flow, it’s important to pay close attention to the nuances of words and phrases. Words should mean what they’re intended to mean, and the connections between them should be clear and cogent. It’s a good idea to pay attention to which words and phrases repeat, too.

Every writer has a tic, a tendency to come back over and over to particular words and phrases. The tic can vary from work to work, but there’s always something that keeps cropping up. In this chapter, it’s eyes acting independently of the people they belong to. Eyes trace, roam, trail, examine, jump. They’re lined with kohl, they’re full of menacing threat—a duplication that can be pruned to one of the synonyms, menace or threat. Rethinking some of these, finding other body parts to focus on, and shifting the agency from the eyes to the person who owns them, will sharpen the imagery and make the writing more active and vivid.

As I said above, these are all suggestions for the late phases of revision, when the novel is complete. In the draft stage, the priority is to get the words on the page, to sort out the characters and get the structure of the plot working well enough to move everything forward.

There’s plenty of time later to hone and polish the prose. For now, my best advice to just get it done. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And yes, I would read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 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.

Ammi’s Broken Vase by S.Z. Siddiqui

Flash fiction is an art unto itself. To tell a complete story in as few words as possible, without sacrificing any of the elements of good storytelling, takes both guts and skill. Every single word counts.

“Ammi’s Broken Vase” ups the ante by working in two separate timelines, builds a world and a complex set of emotional conflicts, adds in literally breathless tension, and does it all in under a thousand words. I salute the author; even in draft, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

I’d like to suggest a couple of ways to make the prose even leaner. The structure of the story, to my eye, is sound; the transitions between the timelines might be a little smoother, but overall it moves well into and out of past and present. There are a few places where paring and streamlining may help with both pacing and narrative flow.

The question I always ask when I line-edit, whether it’s my own prose or a fellow writer’s, is: “Is this word or phrase absolutely essential? If I take it out, will the story make just as much sense? Do I really, really need it?” I also ask: “If I do need this word, is it the exact right one?”

In the final paragraph, for example, do we need to know that the steps are blue? Do we need the word “foyer” or the viewpoint tag “She knew” or are these concepts implied in the rest of the sentence?

Repetition of words, phrases, and ideas can be an effective rhetorical device, but in a flash piece, the rule of less is more tends to apply. A sequence like this

She passed out drunk at Kulsoom’s house. When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV with no ulterior motives, Lubna resolved to drown herself in the red wine she brought.

might be condensed into a single, shorter sentence:

When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV, Lubna passed out, drowning herself in the red wine she’d brought.

Sometimes when we want to keep the word count down, we may condense multiple ideas into a long phrase or string of phrases—packing it all in as tightly as possible. The effect can be a bit crowded, as in the last paragraph: Her lungs almost escaped with the air they expelled as the first cough erupted. There’s an almost songlike quality to this sentence, but it’s a little hard to parse. Opening it up and rearranging it, even adding a word or two, would make it clearer. This might even be an occasion to wield a familiar phrase: she’s literally coughing up a lung.

The overriding concept of flash fiction is focus. Focus on the point of the piece, focus each word and phrase, choose effects with care. No excess; nothing superfluous. It’s wonderful how a well-conceived flash piece—and I think this one is; I love the theme of the broken vase, and the world in which breathing is anything but a natural or simple process—can do so much with so few words. It’s a kind of magic.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 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.

Salt by Billy Palmer

I was happy to find your story here. “Salt” shows us a unique, striking world filled with mystery and magic that is beyond understanding. Some strong sensory details, such as the buzzing cicadas, the croaking bullfrogs, and Sheena’s black teeth, help to put us in this world. Salt is an interesting character, and his relationship with the zombie-like Maguire is quite intriguing. The story draws me in to trying to understand what has happened with Salt and Maguire. I get a strong sense of people struggling to function alongside powers far beyond their control.

I think the story could be improved in several ways. The first-person narrator’s goals are seldom clear, which makes the story feel slow at times and feel as if it is being manipulated by the author rather than driven by the narrator. The narrator’s goal in Act 1 is the strongest; I think she wants to save Maguire. But I don’t know what she thinks she needs to do to save Maguire, and I don’t feel her struggling to save Maguire, so the narrator’s actions feel random. She seems to be killing time waiting for something to happen. If we knew from the beginning that Sheena had told the narrator that brewing tea from the herbs and making him drink it every day would save him, then I would share the narrator’s outrage when Maguire dies. As is, I don’t know what she’s expecting or how she thinks she’s going to get it, so I can’t feel suspense or anticipation or surprise. We need to have expectations and to see events following some sort of causal chain to be able to feel suspense, anticipation, or surprise. Sheena seems to promise only transformation, and the narrator doesn’t seem to believe in this possibility, so I don’t know why the narrator is in the forest or why she’s brewing up the herbs.

When the protagonist’s (in this case, the narrator’s) actions seem random rather than directed toward a goal and don’t follow a clear causal chain, then it feels like the author is making things happen. While, of course, the author makes everything happen, the reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own and the characters have agency. The narrator seems to have no reason to wander and find the path of white sand, since she should be brewing the herbs, and saving Maguire is her goal. If she had a reason to leave Maguire–to find water to brew the herbs, for example–she could find the path of white sand and the reader could feel there’s a good reason for her to do so. Many of the narrator’s actions could profit from being reframed so that her goal causes her to do them.

The story also sends us a clear signal that the narrator has interrupted the normal process of life and death in the forest by breaking the salt circle in which she finds Salt. That seems to lead to Salt being an unfinished version of Maguire, unable to fully take his place, and I think this also leads to Maguire not being absorbed back into the forest and instead having a zombie-like existence. This is the most important action in the story, and it seems to occur by chance, not for any strong reason, and the narrator never reacts to it. It would be better if this had a strong cause, and if it also had strong consequences, such as the narrator going to Sheena and asking if she can finish the process or fix the broken circle. The problem of the broken circle also needs to be explicitly raised in the story, otherwise it’s not clear that it is the cause of Salt and Maguire being as they are, and those things seem random, meaning manipulated by the author.

Once Maguire dies, the narrator’s goal to save him becomes moot, which is fine, but no clear goal arises to move us forward into Act 2. The narrator rubs resin on Maguire’s teeth, following Sheena’s instructions, but I still don’t know what she’s expecting. If she’s expecting him to transform or come back to life, why does she leave the body? If she doesn’t think he’ll come back to life, why is she rubbing the herbs on him? The narrator returns to the village run by Sheena, even though she hates Sheena, and she doesn’t seem to be struggling to achieve any goal. If, instead, she was trying to get Sheena to fix the broken circle and finish the process, she would have a strong goal that is part of a chain of cause and effect. Sheena could refuse; the narrator could try to force her; the conflict could escalate and the stakes could rise.

The most exciting part of the story for me involves the narrator being trapped in a salt circle, to be transformed into something else. I don’t fully understand it, because I thought humans had to be fed to the forest, not put on stumps to become statues and then other people. So the magic seems inconsistent there. But the situation is disturbing and suspenseful. Yet the narrator gets out of it too easily. Sheena knows that Salt and Maguire are around; why wouldn’t she anticipate them freeing the narrator? Why wouldn’t she just kill the narrator and feed her to the forest? Or if she’s not threatened at all by the narrator, why wouldn’t Sheena just knock her out and walk away? If Sheena is angry because the narrator upset the salt circle with Salt inside and ruined the cycle, perhaps she’d do something to try to right the situation. Maybe she’d try to kill all three of them, since Salt and Maguire are results of a process gone wrong and the narrator is responsible. So Sheena’s goal and motivations could be thought out more, the causal chain could be clearer, and once the narrator is in danger, it could be more of a struggle for her to get out of it, if she does at all.

Perhaps, if Sheena is partly successful and the narrator partly joins with the forest and the death gods before gaining her freedom, she could use that power against Sheena, and her goal could be to defeat/kill Sheena in Act 3. Right now, she returns to town with the goal to do something to Sheena, but that seems to shift as the story progresses. First she wants information; then she wants to reveal Sheena as a fraud; then she wants to run away. None of the goals lasts long or requires much struggle, so this is not a well-formed act where suspense builds. Also, since the goal for Act 2 was unclear, it’s not clear that we’re now in Act 3. Making her goals clear for each act will add excitement and suspense.

For me, the ending wasn’t satisfying, since the narrator and her companions escaped without much difficulty and Sheena and the death gods continued as before. The ending might have more power if it showed the narrator had been unable to escape the situation and had been irrevocably changed by it. Perhaps she takes Sheena’s place. That would be more disturbing for me.

That brings me to my last point, which is the horror element. While I enjoyed the dark magic, I never felt frightened by it. Some moments could profit from dilation–slowing the pace by describing in intense, vivid detail–so we feel entrapped in those moments. For example, when the narrator is sitting on the stump and being encircled with the salt, that moment could be slowed down more, so we could really feel the narrator beginning to transform and sense her connecting to the forest and the death gods.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere the story created, as well as the world and the magic, and there are some very nice descriptions. I hope my comments are helpful.

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