Editor’s Choice Award February 2024, Dark 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.

Human In The Warren by Anaid Perez

This chapter has some interesting ideas and some intriguing worldbuilding. There’s a bit of a slow burn on what the characters are and what the hunt actually means. It’s a nice buildup to the moment of, “Oh! That’s what’s going on here.”

On the question of which age-label to attach to the novel, I have two sort-of-answers. One is, Young Adult can go in some pretty harrowing directions, and the tone and subject matter can be quite intense. Look at the Hunger Games series, which has similar themes and plot elements. The whole point of the Hunger Games is to kill off all the combatants until there’s only one left standing.

I don’t think either enslavement or hunting vampires will prevent a work from being marketed as YA. As long as the characters are handled sensitively and with due consideration and respect, the genre is open to difficult subject matter.

My other observation is that, as the author’s note indicates, voice is very important in YA. However, if the novel really wants to aim at an adult audience, what we have here will not be what we see at the end. The protagonist is very young, for a very interesting and plot-essential reason: as a vampire, he’s only three years old. He views the world as a child will, and he acts like one around the other characters.

That’s appropriate for this point in the narrative. Am I right that as the story progresses, he’ll become more mature? As he develops mentally and physically, he’ll perceive the world in more complex ways. The voice will change as he changes. He may begin as a child, but by the time we reach the end of the story, he’ll have grown closer to adulthood.

The prose will need work as the novel advances through successive drafts. I am a strong believer in free-form early drafts. There’s no wrong way to write a first draft. All that matters is to get the words down, build the story, develop the characters. Line edits and the word-by-word can wait until the structural elements are up and working the way they need to be.

At that point, I would recommend paying careful attention to the meanings of words and phrases. Make sure they mean what they want to mean in the context, and that they fit together in clear and comprehensible ways. Examples in this chapter would be caress his lips on, palliated, shot Finley darting, the usual relentless action obsessed. If the reader has to stop and figure what the words are trying to say, the story is stalled; the pages aren’t turning. And turning pages is what prose storytelling is all about.

In the line edits, I would break up the paragraphs, and block out actions and concepts so that they fit together in the the order in which they happen. Sentences tend to run on through successions of comma splices, and actions sometimes happen out of order. It can be hard to follow what’s happening, and hard to figure out what individual phrases and sentences mean.

Think logical, think coherent. And above all, think clear. It should be clear who is doing it, what they are doing, and in what order they do it. Once that’s sorted out, the story will be easier to follow, and the reader will be more likely to keep reading all the way to the end.

Best of luck with the novel, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2024, Science Fiction/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.

Like Mama Used To Do by Allen Dyen-Shapiro

This is a nicely chilling very short dystopia. I like the way we get background details organically through the narrative, as they become relevant to Kristin’s story. They’re quite concise, but surprisingly comprehensive. We can project the wider history through what Kristin shows us.

I’m not sure I would call this YA. As the author’s note points out, the protagonist is much younger than “young adult,” and the rule of thumb for age ranges would put the likely readership around age 8—i.e., elementary school, not quite tweens. But I wouldn’t submit to that market, because the themes and resonances seem to me to need a more adult perspective. Ultimately, in my entirely idiosyncratic opinion, I think its likely market is adult dystopian science fiction. But an editor well might disagree.

One question I have about the story relates to the protagonist’s age and level of maturity. Because the piece is so short and so concise, every word counts, and each one should do its part to develop the author’s voice.

That voice tends toward the simple in both diction and sentence structure. I can hear the child speaking, and see the world as she sees it. The imagery tends toward the concise and the concrete; it works best for me when it stays away from abstract images and concepts, and longer words.

Sometimes the diction slips, and I hear the adult speaking. These phrases read like an adult’s interpretation of Kristin’s story:

the TV special eight-year-old me had loved

Wouldn’t she name the show, because to a kid, it’s the name that sticks, rather than the generic description? And would she refer to herself as “eight-year-old me”? Maybe something like “I used to love when I was eight.”

I was eleven—surely, I was mature enough to handle fire.

I can really hear the adult Kristin here (if she makes it to adulthood). Perhaps something more along the lines of, “I was old enough to do that now.”

My giggling amused Jamie so much that she wrapped her arms around me.

This seems a bit abstract compared to the concrete imagery of the rest, especially the word “amused.” How does she show her amusement? Smile, laugh, giggle back?

I was like Supercop from my favorite TV program.

Same question as above. Wouldn’t she name it? We can pick up that it’s her favorite without her having to tell us.

For fun, I would use the police words from TV.

Kristin seems to have stepped outside the story here, and it’s not clear which timeline she’s in—the one with Momma or the one with Jamie. Maybe just let the dialogue say it for her?

black, white, and grey feathers arranged like a tuxedo

This is somewhat awkwardly phrased, and would Kristin know what a tuxedo is? Maybe turn it around a bit and smooth it out? “because they looked like they were wearing tuxedos”?

allowed myself to cry

“Let myself cry” might work better in the overall context.

And Jamie’s backpack with the Coleman gas canisters, of course.

“Of course” feels to me like an adult interpolation. Does it need to be there?

My other question has to do with the action sequence at the end. I think the prose could be tighter, the narrative flow both smoother and faster. For example,

We’d had close calls where we’d had to run away before

Do we need “where we’d had to run away” to understand what Kristin means?

Or here:

Or maybe they did on the shows Momma hadn’t let me watch. It was awful. My stomach turned somersaults. Breathing hard,

Do we need the aside about the shows? Can her somersaulting stomach convey the awfulness without her spelling it out? And do we need to know she’s breathing hard, or does the fact she runs to Jamie sum it up without the extra words?

And here:

Any other day, a three-in-a-row finish to win the game would’ve made me happy. Instead, I felt numb. I sat, arms and shoulders heavy, throat all scratchy.

There’s a lot going on, but much of it says the same thing. The one thing we absolutely need to know is that she’s numb, and she feels too heavy to move. The game score and the arms and shoulders and the scratchy throat are a bit of a distraction. Does the story need these details, or can it convey the force of her emotion without them?

I think the story is at its best when it’s pared down and streamlined, with very clean, deceptively simple prose. One more line-editing pass, with some tightening up and sorting out of the voice, should take it where it needs to go.

Best of luck with the story, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2024, Fantasy 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.

Moon Jelly Madness by J. Deery Wary

There’s a keen eye for plotting showing through the lines of “Moon Jelly Madness”: gentle without being slight, and rather sweet without sacrificing a page-turning sense of action or depth in its fantasy world. It caught my eye this month with that very deft balance: how much it’s getting on the page in how little space. But there’s room for a little more worldbuilding here, and this month, I’d like to discuss where simplicity works for us and how to find the spaces where it doesn’t.

There’s a lot being done with juxtaposition and tone in the world of “Moon Jelly Madness”: the slightly goofy domestic gentleness of arcane jams and jellies stacked up against the fact that they were burned and banned, and the powerful imagery of its opening paragraphs: a little brother’s hand slipping from Rima’s own at the train station as they fled a war. By implication, this world’s complicated: how Rima lives and her quest is her response to an awfully complicated life.

“Moon Jelly Madness” doesn’t really get too close to the skin in terms of the emotions Rima describes: panic, abandonment, near-obsession. And while that can be a drawback in some pieces, it’s not a bad choice here. “Moon Jelly Madness” is pulling off a skillful effect by saying its most painful, intense things through simplicity and understatement. There’s some very real—and occasionally tangled—dilemmas here for Rima to face (“She’d always thought it would be easy to know if it was the time of direst need” is a wonderful theme as a recurring choice to be made, and a way to chart character growth).

As a technique, this can be quite powerful: it lets the bald facts of an event shine through, without ornamentation that might lessen or dilute the emotions those events can bring up in readers. But I wanted to point out another upside: it lets readers bring their own emotions in instead of telling them how they should feel about the story’s events or characters.

Especially when we’re working with younger protagonists—and maybe aiming for younger readers—there’s a lot to be said for pieces that let readers dictate what kind of emotional involvement they’re capable of and ready for. This is usually considered in terms of age accessibility, but it’s also a very considerate way to proof a story against hard times. The emotions that go along with Rima’s multiple, shattering losses are being invited here, not dictated: readers can bring shock and desolation to that experience if they’re in a place to, or consider it as a loss she’s grieved and put into perspective if that’s where they are. It’s not always the right choice; I think here it’s a good one, which keeps the focus of “Moon Jelly Madness” on how Rima’s moving to solve her unknowns and tragedies—and what might lie ahead for her.

It’s also a way to keep a strong sense of pace, as Rima’s losses segue swiftly from an ocean childhood to her lost brother to the immediate problem of the knapsack. As readers, we’ve already learned a lot about this protagonist in a very few lines—and we’re instantly in the immediate problem, knowing something about its stakes. It introduces the larger problem (Roe and the recipe) rather seamlessly—the delight I felt when she’d realized she memorized the recipe was genuine, and the spur to action from it tangible.

My major suggestion for this story would be to think about the sense of place. Space is really important in “Moon Jelly Madness”: the smells of the market, the breadth of this world, the fact that Rima is a displaced refugee, and that the conflict centers around her brother’s missingness. How her travel has taken her away from Lira, and her chosen family—all of these orbit the idea of being in the right space. Making the piece’s sense of place stronger, more vivid, and more sensory does the trick of making all those themes, ideas, and conflicts more and more real with it.

Orelpi and Lantere are, as it stands, mostly names right now; the hints of food like pineapple ice suggest a season, a climate, a hint of culture, but they’re currently only suggestions in what feels like a world that’s not yet been meaningfully defined on the page. A lot of the story’s physical space is taken up by general stores, peddlers, and innkeepers—all fantasy staples—and historical clues like the presence of art supplies and textile factories don’t offer much in the way of a century-analogue.

This isn’t the kind of story that, I think, needs a world invented from absolute scratch with explanations of everything—the sense of familiarity and comfort here is a tangible plus, and a little timelessness isn’t a bad thing—but this is the place where I’m not sure the understatement serves “Moon Jelly Madness” anymore. There’s a lot of benefit from specificity in what these places feel, smell, and are like—in the same way Lira’s glimpsed personality does. That she’s a sucker for ghost stories—the fantasy equivalent of a true crime podcast fan—is one of those small, delightful details that makes something or someone feel real and alive.

So in the next draft, I’d suggest thinking of specificities for this world: specifically for the differences between Crossberry Town, Orelpi, and Rima’s home village. This is an empire, yes, but it’s not a monoculture: What’s regional? What’s different? As a refugee from one regional culture to another, touring a third, what would Rima notice as different, odd, or familiar? Choosing those details correctly can provide a great foundation for both deepening readers’ access to her as a character and building a more solid sense of place.

I’d also suggest finding ways to incorporate dimensions into the narrative description that aren’t there yet – the one that stands out to me most is colour. It’s tangibly absent in “Moon Jelly Madness” when Rima’s discussing anything but blackberries, and filling out that missing piece is another way to add concreteness to her world. But beyond that suggestion: It’s worth looking at what senses haven’t been covered well in the descriptive work here, and start salting them in to create a place that’s round and alive.

That said, this has the makings of a great, kind light fantasy piece that isn’t skimping on the emotional depth. I’m really looking forward to potential future drafts.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award January 1, 2024, Fantasy/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.

Flying Beyond The Mother Sea by Lyri Ahnam

This story excerpt offers a glimpse of an intriguing world. It raises good questions in this reader’s mind: What kind of bone are the towers made of? Is it hunted, scavenged, salvaged? Does the term fish-singers mean fishers actually sing the fish into the nets? These people must not be human, between the fact they’re genderless, and the use of the term budparent. I’d like to know more about what they look like as well as how they think. Overall I get the sense that this is a carefully and thoroughly built world, and that there’s a great deal more of it to explore.

The excerpt needs a bit of polish and a little more thinking through of the individual scenes. There’s an unfinished feel to it, a sense that it needs more layers of emotion and motivation.

In the opening scene, although we’re told why Aislon is alone and unobserved, I want a little bit more. A phrase here, a line there, that places them more distinctly in context. A sense of how deep their rebellion is, and how far they’ve deviated from the path ordained for them by their family and their culture. Then when Fuar appears, we’ll be ready for the confrontation.

I wonder too how Aislon has managed to pursue their project so far without any resistance or interference. Has no one seen them? Asked why they’re accumulating the materials for the glider? Entered their room and asked questions?

What is their family situation? Is it just Aislon and Fuar? Who else lives in the mansion? Are there other relatives? Does their culture have servants? We hear a flute, see curtains, but there are no people in evidence except the distant fish-singers.

These questions don’t all need to be answered in one short excerpt, but I’d have liked a hint or two or three. More context; more background. More sense that the world is populated.

The conversation between Aislon and Fuar needs more context as well. As written, it’s a “floating heads” scene: lines of dialogue with minimal framing. A line of stage business here and there—tone, expression, body language, as well as a bit of emotional or physical reaction in our viewpoint character—will round out the scene and give us a better sense of the characters.

Adding emotional and contextual layers does not necessarily mean adding word count. The excerpt is rich in description and in visual imagery. But it’s also rich in repetitive words and phrases.

Phrases echo each other in adjacent sentences: bone towers in the opening sequence for example. We may not need strings of noun combinations—tension fiber harness or rope safety tether or tether rope. Do we have to know the exact material, as long as we know what it does?

If a word acts as a modifier, does that word earn its keep? Does colorful tell us all we need to know, or could we have a word that more clearly defines the concept? Do we need both graceful and elegant, along with lacy and the billowing curtains, or can the image be a little more concise?

In short, how much of the description is essential to the movement of the story and the development of the characters, and how much can be folded into context while we focus more on Aislon’s inner world and the conflicts that drive it? The end of the excerpt features a major life decision, a choice that will change everything. The beginning and middle can do more to support it.

Give us more of Aislon’s need to be free; more of the complex emotions that underlie their actions. They must know their culture and their family well enough to understand that what they’re doing won’t meet with approval. Their dream of being named a Paragon is consciously naïve. Where does that naivete come from? How do we get from Aislon’s dream to Fuar’s flat denial?

If we have those layers of emotion, and those elements of background and context, Aislon’s choice to launch into the storm becomes inevitable. There is nothing else they can possibly do and still be able to keep on living.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2023, 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.

Razer’s Loop by Philip Delisle

Writing tight is hard. We want to relax and Explain Things. We let superfluous words creep in, and repetitions of words and phrases, and dialogue that resembles real-world conversations, padded out with bits of fluff and filler.

In a flash piece, even more than in the usual short story, every single word has to count. There’s very little room to maneuver. The more concise the writing is, the more lean and spare the prose, the better—without sacrificing clarity.

This story has an interesting premise. Razer is caught in a loop—software, presumably, but it translates as a set of time loops, each perceptibly different from the last. There are interpolations from outside, but he’s focused on what’s happening inside the loop: the bar, the bathroom, the escape.

I think the frame could be a little bit clearer: what’s going on outside, and why he’s in such danger. There’s room to do that if the prose is pared down.

I can see where the author has made efforts in this direction. They translate for the most part as short, choppy sentences, or else as strings of modifiers meant to round out the setting and the action. But there’s more that could be done, and a few habits that tend to add words rather than subtract them.

One of these is a tendency toward filler phrases in dialogue. Take this exchange for example:

“Sure.” He spilled a couple of pills onto the bar. Razer downed them.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. So, wha’d they do? Neural enhancement?”

“Thanks” and “Don’t mention it” are polite social filler. In context, as rough as the bar is, I don’t think it’s necessary. And that’s four words off the count.

The back and forth about the chip might go, as well. It’s kind of funny, but does it add enough to the story to be worth the couple of dozen words? Will Doritos even be a thing by the time of the story, and if so, are they important enough for the name-check and the extended comic turn?

Jane’s apologies, too: can they be shorter? Can she be tougher? Maybe he sees her cry, but she scrubs the tears away and gets down to business. Less apology, more hit the gas and go.

There are a number of doors in the narrative, with characters walking or running through them. What if the scene shifts without the transition, and the character appears in the new space? Do we need to see them walking or running, or can those actions be left to implication? Say Razer bursts into the bathroom, and there’s a bald guy on the toilet. Fewer words, tighter action.

Or this sequence:

“Looks like your pals are here.” Lone said, nodding to the door and the two agents who had walked in. They were dressed in black.

How about something like this:

“Looks like your pals are here,” Lone said, nodding toward the two black-suited agents who had just come in.

We can assume they came through the door, but we’re hearing about it in different words. The story moves faster, and is closer to making the 1000-word limit.

When they appear in a later sequence, instead of three choppy sentences–

He nodded to the door. Two agents walked in. They wore Sombreros–

try tightening them up: “He nodded toward two agents in sombreros.” Try for a smoother flow, with less chop—and, as a bonus, fewer words.

Watch for passive verb forms, too. Was using, were swirling. Think about shifting to active. In the first, “He climbed up over pissing-man,” and in the second, just “swirled.” Try to avoid “there was/were.” Go straight to whatever “there” refers to, and shift it to active voice.

It’s mostly a matter of a word here and a phrase there, but they really add up—or, in this case, subtract—without sacrificing either clarity or pacing. The story will move faster, with more tension and suspense. In a sci-fi thriller, that’s a good thing.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2023, Comic 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.

Oscar and Lemuel by Elizabeth Porco

One of the greatest challenges of the short story is that it is short. You have a limited number of words to convey everything necessary for the ending to cause a powerful impact on readers. The shorter the story is, the greater the challenge is.

How can writers meet such a challenge? There are many strategies, but no matter which one you use, your words are limited, so you need to make the most of every word. That means every word, every sentence should serve more than one purpose. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. And maybe hopping on one foot too.

“Oscar and Lemuel” succeeds in doing a lot in 1168 words. We see that Oscar is wealthy, concerned about getting to heaven when he dies, and harsh when he sees behavior he considers improper. He seems to hold himself to certain standards, and that leads him to be intolerant of others who don’t uphold the standards he thinks they should. This leads to the climax in which his fear of dying and not going to heaven comes to pass, and the harsh judgements he’s been making on others are now about to be made on him—at least, that’s how I read the end.

That’s a pretty unified story, in which the elements conveyed are all important to setting up the ending. But could each word and sentence do more to strengthen the impact of the ending?

For me, the opening, with Oscar making a donation to Father Edward, introduces a number of elements that don’t seem to contribute to the story’s impact. The donation is meant to fund an organ for the church, and Father Edward mentions a particular organ company, and Oscar questions whether this is the best company and suggests European companies, and they discuss an organ at a particular cathedral. This section launches many elements that don’t appear again in the story. It is 189 words long, but I don’t think it provides 189 words’ worth of impact at the end.

What seems important in this section is that Oscar is donating to the church and hoping it will guarantee his spot in heaven. For me, the details about the organ and the organ companies don’t seem to contribute anything. I wonder if they could be replaced with other details that might do more. For example, perhaps the donation is intended to fund a new horse and carriage for Father Edward. Oscar might give enough for two very fine horses and a fancy carriage. This would show his desire to guarantee his spot in heaven, the same as the organ donation, but I think it could tie to the ending more strongly. At the end, Oscar is told to get into a carriage pulled by two horses. Repeating the image of a carriage at the beginning and the end could create resonance and increase the impact. (One way to create resonance is to repeat an element, showing it from different angles and perspectives, so we compare the various appearances with each other.) The carriage might be the very one Oscar suggests to Father Edward, or might have features Oscar imagined would be on Father Edward’s carriage. So the vehicle he expected would carry him to heaven is actually carrying him to hell, or something like hell. This would fit with the reversal of other elements at the ending.

While the organ gets too many words, I think the horse doesn’t get enough words. Resonance might also be increased by starting the story with Oscar tying his horse Lemuel at a distance from Father Edward’s rose bushes. At the end, perhaps Lemuel has rose petals falling out of his mouth as he chews them.

I’ll briefly talk about a few other elements I think could be strengthened. Oscar’s character could use a little more depth. I’d love some hints about why Oscar is making this donation now. Is it just one of many donations he’s made over most of his life? Or did he do something (with Merriam?) that he now wants to make amends for? Or does he feel his health failing?

It could also increase the impact of the ending if we know Oscar’s expectations of hell. As is, the story establishes those at the end, when it’s too late. I think he must fear hell, since he’s trying to avoid it. If we know what he fears hell will be, and then we see what it actually is, that will help us to feel Oscar’s reaction more powerfully and our own reactions will be sharper.

I don’t quite understand why Lemuel says that final line. It opens a lot of vague possibilities in my mind, rather than providing a punchy impact. Maybe I’m missing something.

On a very minor point, I would think any stable would have some horse blankets.

I hope my comments are helpful. I enjoyed following Oscar’s story.

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, 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.

The Mongoose Can’t Open The Lock On Its Cage by Kate Orman

I loved the eerie, vaguely Ancient Sumerian world of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage”: a strange, sweet, multidimensional archipelago of three-dimensional towns scattered through a four-dimensional wilderness, and the complications it puts into people’s relationships as they rely on each other. It’s a piece with tons of potential, and a lot already going right on the sentence level, but not yet developed fully in terms of characterization and plot. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we can use poetic tools—assonance, the unexpected word—to worldbuild a genre story, or solve the places it’s not working yet.

First off, “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” starts with what any story envies: a killer first line. “The troupe walked out of hell tied together with rope” is a remarkably effective opening sentence: a combination of simple, direct sentence structure, poetic assonance (three T-sounds that shape the cadence of the words), and a set of words I would never expect in combination—except not in a showy or flashy way. The counterbalance between the simplicity of the structure and the novelty of the words in it, balanced on a stable rhythm to the ear (which is also a good choice for a story about storytelling!) is absolutely perfect. It’s instantly compelling, and instantly sets a tricksterish, surrealist, off-kilter tone.

While it’s a tool that’s more mentioned in the context of poetry—not so much prose!—that use of assonance really does add a great deal, very subtly. “Gunu the guide” reinforces that folkloric feeling in the first paragraph. The implied weirdness and exhaustion in “under a simple sun” is massive, and builds Gunu’s characterization early while feeling—in itself!—like a simple sentence. Ma-az’s almost incantory, odelike “holy Gunu” and “magical Gunu” bring back the sense of an ancient epic—while also making it clear that he’s absolutely sucking up.

All this creates a comfortable unreality that absolutely mirrors the sense of towns scattered through a wilderness-esque expanse of hell that only some neurologies can see. It’s picking up counterbalances in the broader worldbuilding: the normalcy of keeping bees, dealing with workaday corruption and hard-to-get news while the mathematicians watch hell through telescopes. Again, that sense of balance—the odd, fantastical, and the pedestrian—keeps me engaged in Lunizuh Town as a place. It’s neither too strange to emotionally invest in or too routine to pay attention to.

That sense of combined strangeness and the everyday are the major strength of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage”—a poetry strength. It’s evoking the act of seeing wonder in the everyday, like contemporary poets, or finding the emotion in the strange, like speculative ones. So I’m being nudged into reading this piece through poetry-logic, and it’s through poetry-logic that I can see spaces for improvement in the next drafts.

The major suggestions I have for “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” are about the places—both in the plot and in its overall structure—where that sense of balance between the mundane and the strange falters. While the sentence-level balance between big, counterfactual concepts and minimalist prose is fundamentally a good one, there’s places where I think it’s tipping a little too far into minimalism, and the flow of the piece devolves for a while into anecdotes and sketches—and pieces of this story get lost.

On the most basic sentence level, there are missing textures, tastes, and details within this whole world. Once we hit the third scene—Jot seeing Ma-az’s arm—the space they’re inhabiting is becoming more and more sparse on the page. While it’s functional to have Lunizuh Town be a town like any other when compared to hell, where they’ve just been? The spectacle of that missing arm needs something grounding to counterbalance it: a wall texture, the kind of floor, the level of light, the feeling in Gunu or Jot’s own bodies. What is normal about the space in which this scene takes place?

Likewise, there’s missing balance when Ma-az and Gunu are walking through hell. They’re explaining the theory of the worldbuilding, but the world they’re walking through is not rendered in any sensory way—and Gunu can see it. The scene needs grounding, and we have a POV character who can ground us; I think there’s value in fleshing that out.

On a word-choice level, there’s a slightly smaller suggestion: the question of the droplet. In a story full of extremely evocative images and words, it’s not a very defined or concrete term—the word tells me nothing about either the neurological or magical aspects of this ability to traverse hell in the ways that “a simple sun” does. I’d normally not get this micro, but given the way poetry techniques are working in this story, I want to suggest finding a finer word for this idea: something that throws a little light or shadow on what it is, how it works, how Gunu feels about it.

Taken up to the plotting level, the sense of minimalism has most revelations in the story introduced later, as an afterthought, rather than played straight with readers—and the consequences of that knowledge allowed to play out. Things like the theft and the plan to abandon Ma-az don’t quite work as action described in media res, because they don’t have the context built up to make those decisions make sense in retrospect. There’s little prefiguring for the idea that Ma-az’s theft has been discovered and the town doesn’t trust the troupe anymore; they seem to treat them absolutely neutrally, with pretty much standard hospitality. Reading back, I can’t find any signs otherwise that would have tipped off a problem, or shown me the pieces of the problem I didn’t have eyes to see before. There’s too much minimalism, not enough straightforward strangeness, and my faith in the plot suffers for it.

I don’t normally do this, but I would go so far as to suggest rethinking what kind of ending would suit a world that’s built to these specifications. Ultimately, the current draft of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” is falling into one of the templates described best on Strange Horizons’s “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often” list: a variant of people breaking the rules and getting punished. It’s a fairly standard arc, where the story’s primed me to look for something rich, weird, wild. To abuse the metaphor: it’s the expected word; it doesn’t rhyme with what’s come before. So I will go so far as to say that I think there is a much more interesting story in this place, these characters, these language structures, and these interactions—one that matches closer to what the story itself is telling me to look for here.

“The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” is telling me, through its techniques, its structures, the way its people talk, that this is a piece made half of myth and poetry. All the things that work for me as a reader here lean into that sense of the odd and wild, framed by simplicity. I think if the places where the story isn’t quite clicking yet also make that lean—bring themselves into alignment, into rhyme with the rest, as if this was a poem!—something wonderful will happen here.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2023,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.

Time And Space And Other Relationship Conflicts by Bobby Harrell

This is a very Whovian story. Lots of time travel, plenty of breakneck action, and that ever-useful Omni-Tool. I particularly like the concept of the Newlyweds. They’re so adorable and yet so subtly terrifying.

I would recommend a careful line edit and a close copyedit before submitting to a market. Look particularly for slippages in verb tenses, and the occasional idiomatic oddity: She shook her head in agreement (which is a contradiction in terms), for example. Note the tendency toward word and phrase echoes, too, notably I say with a smile and the less frequent say in unison. In some ways it reads as if the story was written in a single headlong draft, pouring out the words exactly as they came, without looking back at what had gone before.

I have two larger questions about the draft as written. First, there is so much going on, so many ideas and concepts and images and places and times and characters both organic and mechanical, that it can be hard to keep track. We eventually find out the origin story of the Newlyweds, but the Fleet Commander’s nature and purpose are not so clear. She seems to be a veteran traveler through space and time, and she says she has a built-in ability to jump to the Hangar, and yet Tanisha instructs her as if she’s never done it before. This reads like a continuity glitch, or else as if there’s some data missing from the draft. Or maybe there’s so much data that it’s tumbling over itself; it needs to be pruned rather than expanded, with fewer details and a clearer focus on the main line of the plot.

The other question relates to the emotional temperature of the story. With all that’s going on, the sweep and scope of the setting and the rapid progression of events, it feels rather flat. The highs are not very high, and the lows are not that much lower. The stakes are astronomical—the Newlyweds are a threat to the very stability of spacetime—and yet the prose smooths it all out.

The characters’ speeches are mostly deadpan. Nobody asks or yells or demands or insists. It’s all just says. When bad or scary things happen, the characters slide on by. Things blow up, rogue machines attack, but they don’t do any real damage. When the Newlyweds get wiped out, that’s all right; it’s just their holograms. Nobody gets too terribly upset.

Some of this has to do with sentence structure. The same rhythms, the same arrangement of clauses, often the same words and phrases, over and over, with minimal variation. Writers’ craft advises us to convey action in short sentences and paragraphs, but when each one is similar to the one before, we lose the effect of speed and urgency. It’s like a metronome: tick tick, tick tick, tick tick.

Many of these sentences avoid committing to an action or an emotion. Somehow a thing happens, or a character knows a thing. Something like halves of a ladder slide up; or something crackles in the air. It’s nebulous; it’s undefined. It slips away from engaging with a concept or a feeling.

I would suggest shifting the focus from the vague or abstract to the specific and concrete. What crackles in the air? How does this part of the adventure feel? What lingering effect does it have on the characters? How does it change the way they see the universe? Let the characters feel more of what’s going on, and react in more depth, with more complex ranges of emotions.

There’s a lot to like about this story. It just needs some refining of the prose, and a deeper dive into the characters’ inner worlds.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Publication News, Part Two

A second burst of good news!

Ethan Sabatella wants us to know: “I’m writing to let you announce that a story I had workshopped on OWW has sold.

My story, titled “The Madman and Morgawr” (appearing under the title “Balefire Beneath the Waves”) will be featured in DMR Books’ sword & sorcery fantasy anthology Die By the Sword Volume 2, set to be published in Spring 2024.”
Congratulations, Ethan!

Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, 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.

Impy by Steve Brady

One effective way of drawing readers into your story is with a series of questions and answers.  “Impy” does this very well.  The first sentence describes the protagonist being awakened by a guard at 4:30 AM.  This makes me wonder, “Why so early?” and “Why a guard?”  In the third sentence, “today is a special day” raises another question in my mind:  “Why is today special?”  These are not earth-shattering questions, but readers don’t need to have earth-shattering questions in their mind to keep reading.  A series of clear, small questions can create curiosity and anticipation that make readers continue to the next sentence.  Those questions are like a trail of breadcrumbs readers are popping in their mouths as they read.

The story also needs to provide answers.  Too many questions without any answers don’t allow readers to swallow those breadcrumbs, and they can get overwhelmed with questions, frustrated, and confused.  If you can both answer a previous question and raise a new question in a sentence, readers will be doubly engaged.  For me, this happened in the second paragraph of “Impy,” with the line, “You can have anything you want for breakfast today.” This reveals that the protagonist is scheduled for execution, and this is his last meal.  This answers two of my previous questions, “Why a guard?” and “Why is today special?”  And it raises two new questions, bigger ones:  “What crime did he commit?” and “Is he actually going to be executed or will he escape it in some way?”  The next paragraph answers the question about his crime; the question about his execution is one that raises suspense and dominates the rest of the story.

There are a few ways in which this technique can go wrong.  Questions can be unclear or too complicated, particularly at the beginning, for readers to understand.  Or questions may be too “in the weeds” for readers to care about them or their answers.  Too many questions may be piled up without answers.  Answers may be unclear or overly complicated.  Or, particularly with the bigger questions, the answers may not be satisfying.

I felt the first scene of this story worked very well, making me feel a lot of curiosity and suspense.  Another “big” question raised in that scene is “Did the protagonist, whose memory is unclear, really kill his son?” The most excitement I felt came when the story prompted the biggest question in the story.  The story is told in second person POV, but almost halfway through, we get this sentence–“You’ve thought you’d finally conquered me before, but I might embarrass you if you let your guard down”—and discover there is a secret “I” lurking in the story. “Who is this I?” I’m dying to know.

For me, the answer to this question is not satisfying, which makes the second scene not as strong as the first.  In the second scene, the protagonist, injected with an experimental drug for his execution, is caught in a dream world while his body is in a coma.  There, he meets the “I” of the story, Impy, who may be an imp, an elf, the devil, a demon, or a part of the protagonist.  The protagonist asks who Impy is, but there is no answer.  The protagonist asks why Impy made him kill his son, but there is no answer.  Impy hints that perhaps there’s some middle ground between “madness” and “haunting.”  While that’s an interesting idea, for me, it’s an idea that needs to be explored through an entire story, so I could see the interactions between the protagonist and Impy and try to figure out for myself whether Impy is a part of the protagonist’s mind or some external force.  As is, this idea is not raised until the end, and I don’t really get to know either the protagonist or Impy, so it’s impossible for me to form an opinion about what Impy is.  The biggest question is basically answered with a question, which is hard to make satisfying.

If the author is interested in exploring this question, then I think the story probably ought to take place earlier in the protagonist’s life, when he is sensing the presence and influence of Impy inside him.

If, instead, the author is interested in showing us the protagonist headed for execution and revealing the presence of Impy near the end, then I think the story needs to provide clear and compelling answers to the questions that have been raised. And in stories that have revelations near the end, it’s important to plant evidence earlier in the story that will support the answer.  For example, in a murder mystery, the murderer is usually revealed near the end, answering our question about who did it, but in addition to that, as we think back over the story, we find that this answer changes how we viewed previous events and provides a better understanding of those events.  I don’t think that’s happening yet.

There are a couple other things I want to briefly mention.  One is that the use of this experimental drug seems coincidental.  The fact that Impy is inside the protagonist has nothing to do with why he was chosen for the drug, so that feels manipulated by the author rather than arising from a strong causal chain of events.

The other thing is that the protagonist seems to know about Impy at the beginning of the second scene, yet in the first scene, there is no mention of Impy in the protagonist’s thoughts.  Whenever readers are getting a character’s thoughts and some important fact that character knows is withheld, that makes readers feel cheated.  I think that aspect of the story needs some more thought.

I enjoyed the first scene a lot and thought questions and answers were handled skillfully there.  I also think the second person POV with the hidden first person works well.  I hope my comments are helpful.  You might enjoy the novel THE PERFECT WIFE by J. P. Delaney.

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