Editor’s Choice Award August 2022, 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.

Hitler’s Lips by RedDwarf Star

“Hitler’s Lips” caught my attention this month with its smart, multilayered dive into social trust and how we see each other as people, not categories. This is a refreshingly humane story, one that observes all kinds of social lines incisively without lashing out at them or falling into sentimentality. More importantly, it does a great job at choosing tools that reflect the story it wants to tell: ones that refract and reflect its themes. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we align our tools with our idea—and how to diagnose the gaps between them.

There’s a lot going on in “Hitler’s Lips”: grief, social ostracism and intimidation on multiple levels, a pandemic in progress—and underpinning them all, how people carry the weight. What makes all that fit into a few thousand words is a keen awareness of structure and how each question can tie into—and play off—each other in a way that feels seamless.

One of the most useful questions I have for thinking about structure is: Does form follow function? Or in other words, are we using tools, structures, word choices, POVs, and worlds with the same attributes as the central idea we want to express? Do the stories we’re telling and the ways we tell those stories have something in common? Readers might not be able to pick out every feature of those common points, but will notice those resonances in a way that feels like good story.

When “Hitler’s Lips” is at its strongest, it’s meeting that question well. As a story about people being more complex, organic, and multilayered than demographics, categories, and shallow assumptions capture, it’s powerful when its techniques reflect that idea: complex, multilayered themes, a non-linear timeline, and actively leveraging and subverting expectations about what a story named for Hitler might do.

The most notable place this works is in the story’s skillful imagery. When Lisa sees Gerald through expectations, she’s looking for swastikas, seeing light like “sepia-toned photographs”, and assuming that Gerald’s lurking and lonely. The language is more than a little loaded and dehumanizing in those moments—and in some wonderfully expressive, inventive, and specific ways: the “obese couch” and panic that smells like raw pork.

This tendency works on the larger scale too: the description of Lisa’s suburban childhood neighbourhood “where the chrome flagpoles beside front doors and the polished metal of cars gave off a hateful glare,” does possibly the most work in the whole piece. It’s a space described in angles and bunkers, red, white, and blue, and imbues the space itself with an unending, oppressive rigidity. It’s very clear how much Lisa feels dehumanized by this environment: how bright, harsh, and unforgiving it is.

But when “Hitler’s Lips” gently strips those expectations back to let the actual people in the room emerge, the language follows it: the all-too-organic description of Gerald’s hands and the deliberately ambiguity Lisa peppers her memory with. There are a few images that follow this progression explicitly: from Gerald’s mask blurring him into an age range instead of an age to Lisa parsing his emotions through it, to the realization that it has been off, and he hasn’t flinched from her naked face. Aside from establishing the very real feeling of front-line jobs during COVID, this creates an active thematic progression through using the same visual in different ways.

Another great example, in this case, is “white-coated professional free of pain”, a phrase that’s blurring the meaning of those first words rather expertly. It evokes both the white coat of a doctor—the literal description—and the idea of a thin coating of whiteness itself, one that ostensibly protects her from harm. Those two words do twice as much work in the same space, and the experience of reading them both ways at once opens the door for a feeling of non-rigidity, ambiguity, context.

What makes this work isn’t just the objective quality of the metaphors and word choice, it’s how those choices change to reflect Lisa’s emotional progress through the story from archetypes and stereotypes—”Dragon Lady Meets Hitler”—to two human beings candidly working the question of how to cope. It’s a shape that resonates with the idea it’s carrying, and that’s what makes it powerful.

Likewise, the places where “Hitler’s Lips” could be strengthened are places where ideas aren’t tied into that progression and structure, where form isn’t quite following function yet. And notably, to my eye, the scenes between when Gerald has his indigestion attack and Lisa’s leaving the house.

This ranges from small thoughts to larger ones. For example, Lisa’s thought about milky eyes and lactose intolerance is one that I’m not sure adds enough, considering the immediacy of the situation—a person in possibly life-threatening pain. It’s a riff on the idea of intolerance, but not one that ties in or pays off, and it’s a new idea introduced right as that idea’s about to change. Because of where it is, the sum total for me was to see it as a distraction, pulling away from the idea that people are the most important thing in a dangerous situation.

That question of danger also can potentially be handled more structurally. Because Gerald’s not in as much danger as Lisa thinks—which highlights that same central themes of assumptions being fatal—there’s a little possible backlash from readers. We’ve been told there’s danger, and then it’s been pulled back just as easily, and this has a chance of damaging readers’ trust in the story.

I don’t think it’s fatal, but I would look carefully at ways to handle that that don’t just have Lisa berating herself as stupid and closing the issue. The symptoms she sees are reasonable symptoms; she has reasons for reacting in the ways she does, and all they need to do is be surfaced well.

There are ways, I think, to tie that incident and her reaction more tightly into her history with the CPR class, her mother’s drowning, her still-fresh grief for her father, the way her brother can’t quite handle the shape of that loss and falls back into childishness. This is less about having more of that information—it’s all there—but just organizing it more mindfully in that part of the story. This is an important moment—important enough that it’s the title of the story—and handling it with more depth and richness, instead of falling back into scripts and shorthands (that she’s stupid) might be a path to making that mini-crisis not feel like a source of tension that was immediately walked back, but like a revelatory piece of character work, and a turning point in the plot.

Finally, as Lisa’s leaving, there are structurally also two emotional payoffs: one where Gerald says that he’d find a way to deal with things if it meant living, and the second around changing his name. From here, they feel like two alternate variations of the same structural scene: Gerald offers Lisa a piece of experience about being strong, taking care of yourself, and perspective that changes how she thinks about her own life. They’re fulfilling, ultimately, the same function.

I’d suggest either choosing between those ways of expressing the structural scene, or combining them in a way that makes them one conversation in one space. It’s a chance to take that little bit of repetition out, and concentrate the impact both of them would have into one space.

The second major place I might suggest for polish is in carrying Lisa’s revelation through structurally. She gains an understanding about being whole, about treating people as they are rather than checkboxes, that there is no such thing as “an accurate census of everyone”, but when she returns to the Census office she’s still thinking of her coworker as “a Nigerian woman”. The form’s not following the function here, in how she thinks of people, and that’s a small contradiction that I think can be worked.

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All in all, what “Hitler’s Lips” has to say for itself is beautiful and necessary: Loss was inevitable. You had to not be reduced by it. Stay whole or try to be so again. It’s a thought that deserves the best framing possible, and I think this one’s almost there. By extending the thinking it’s already using—making the tools match the goals—this has a chance of being wonderfully elegant, and doing some real good for readers.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award July 2022, 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.

Team MARU by Lyri Ahnam

I really like the premise of this story. The protagonist is strong, with a clearly defined voice. And of course I love Maru.

The opening tries for fast pacing and taut tension, and mostly succeeds. By the time Starling kills the snake, the pacing has slowed down and the exposition has ramped up. The trek from the lab to the base camp has a tendency to focus on nonessential details, with a fair amount of repetition: Maru’s claws on Starling’s skin, Starling’s genetically engineered status, her prolonged deafness after the blast.

Her passage through the camp is remarkably easy, as is her escape in the General’s plane. There don’t appear to be any people in the camp except for the Eyes, who don’t catch on at all to the fact that she’s not one of their superior officers. She escapes with ease. There’s no pursuit, and she waits a considerable while to disconnect the black box and dump the stolen com. Then it’s off to the next mission, cat in tow.

I have a number of suggestions for revisions. While the prose could be tightened quite a bit to meet the goal of 5000 words (and actually come in a fair bit under), I think the emphasis for now should be on the structure of the story.

First, I would recommend moving a good chunk of the exposition from the second half, and especially the final third, to the earlier part of the story. Tighten, pare, and streamline these passages, and weave them into Starling’s escape from the lab and her trek to the base camp. Give us quick, concise references to Starling’s past and especially her relationship with General Dikson, to Gem’s past and her mission at the lab, and make it clearer why she’s killed herself. A line here and there in the action sequence at the beginning, then further clarification as Starling makes her escape and processes (or doesn’t) her grief.

By the time she gets to the base camp, the reader should have a pretty good sense of who she is, who Gem was, and what their mission is. I’d like to be clearer on how their arcs connect, too. Are they allies? Are they working for the same forces? Are their goals the same? Some of that is in the draft, but I think it needs more.

During her trek Starling deals with obstacles and evades pursuit, but once she’s in the base camp, that mostly disappears. Her passage through the camp and her escape should be messier and more complicated. There’s room for that once the esposition and backstory are streamlined and moved to earlier scenes.

I think too that she might have a stronger sense of purpose, more of a defined mission. Instead of more or less randomly coming across the camp, she might be looking for something like it—the pursuit has to come from somewhere. It almost might be less of a coincidence that Dikson shows up. Could she be looking for the source of the surveillance, and have reason to suspect that it’s someone she knows from her own past?

Her escape could have more sense of purpose, too. Would she have a goal, a place to be? In the draft, she’s just running, evading pursuit. She could be aiming in a particular direction, or thinking about where to go next. In short—more overall sense of mission, and more purpose in what she does.

The same, I think, applies to Maru. Starling says she’s not a cat person, but Gem entrusted the cat to her. It’s an act of love and tribute to honor Gem’s last wishes. But since she is in the story, and since every element of a short story ought to earn its keep, could Maru play a greater part in the development of the plot?

It doesn’t have to be a whole new plot-thing. But Maru is remarkably docile for a cat, and stays remarkably close to Starling, who is not her human. Can that be turned to advantage in some way? If she’s genetically engineered, is there some useful thing she can do to help Starling accomplish her mission? Can she alert Starling to threats, serve as ears while her own are damaged, help her find the base camp? Might her hunting skills come in handy in the camp, or for that matter, could her cuteness be weaponized to distract camp personnel from Starling’s campaign of sabotage?

Not to mention that she has actual weapons in the form of claws. She uses them freely on Starling. Could they be aimed at others as well?

The title of the story after all is “Team Maru.” Maybe think about how to weave that concept more strongly into the plot, and make Maru a fully contributing member of the team. Even if Starling wants to stow her out of the way in the camp, she could escape and do something helpful, possbly something that Gem taught her to do, or that she was programmed to do by whoever grew her in the vat. There’s a lot a cat can do to turn military order into chaos.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

 

Publication News

Gregor Hartmann wrote with great news: “I’m pleased to announce that “A Language Older Than Ears,” another Inspector Song mystery, has been published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine (June 2022 issue). It was critiqued here last spring. Thanks again to Andrea Horlick, Larry Pinaire, Bryce Heckman, Kathleen Morrish, and Emily Scharf for their comments.”

Congratulations, Gregor!

Editor’s Choice Award July 2022, 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.

Reflections On The Anniversary Of My Descent, Chapter 1 by Kell Shaw

In response to the question in the author’s note, for me there’s enough mystery and ambiguity especially toward the end, that I’d keep reading to find out what happens. The concept is interesting and I like the idea of a dispatch from beyond the grave.

What I’d like to talk about for this Editor’s Choice is a more general topic: distancing and filters. At first I thought I’d call it passive writing, but it’s more complex than that. It’s a tendency to separate the reader from the narrative and the characters through the use of passive voice and temporizing constructions.

Passive voice is a powerful tool. When the subject drops out of the discourse, when actions happen without an agent, the story takes a step away from immediate and lived experience. It’s filtered. Emotion is muted, tension weakened.

When it’s deliberate and calculated, it excludes the reader from the direct experience. It can twist the meaning in subtle and even pernicious ways. “A shot was fired” as opposed to “X shot Y.” X and Y are no longer there. It’s just the shot, exploding in empty space.

Passive prose isn’t only the direct use of the passive voice. It creeps in through the use of passive or distanced constructions. I am by no means opposed to the use of was and were and their relatives, but when they show up frequently and to the exclusion of active constructions, the cumulative effect is to distance the reader from the characters and the story.

Look at this progression:

There were several useful things I should have done.

Then a little later:

There were two more. One was a guy watching everything

And shortly thereafter:

That was the three of them

There are active bits in between these passages, but the repetition of there were/that was adds up. Think about how to shift the discourse toward the active. “I could have done several things.” “I saw two more. One was watching everything.” And maybe the third doesn’t need to be there; it’s already clear that there are three.

A similar thing happens with temporizing phrases. They seem to be an attempt to make the narrative more conversational, to establish that the narrator is telling a story in an oral-ish style. What mostly happens however is that the narrator inserts herself between the reader and the story.

Here at the beginning:

well! I pulled through

Does “well!” add anything to the story? Does it need to be there?

C’mon—the Dark Emperor’s insignia?

Here too. Is “c’mon” necessary?

Another form of temporizing is the use of negatives or inherent contradictions:

And it’s not because I have a genetic demon dad—it’s because…

Or here:

Like I was going to lie quietly while they cut me. Instead

Such constructions can make the reader feel as they’re being pushed away from the direct action. The emotional affect flattens and the pacing slows down. Again, as with passive constructions in general, a little can go a long way and be very effective in setting up a contrast between the predominantly active narration and the brief shift to a more filtered experience. It’s what horse riders call a half-halt: a pause, a brief break in the movement. But too many half-halts can stop the movement altogether.

One last thing to watch for is the tendency to minimize a particular action or line of thought. It often expresses itself as some version of the phrase,

I didn’t have time to worry about that.

What this tells the reader is that the information they’ve just been given is not relevant. It erodes their trust in the narrator. If she’s explicitly not giving them the information they do need in order to understand what’s going on, how much of the rest is relevant, either?

All of this, when done deftly and deliberately, can make the story stronger. An unreliable narrator can be fascinating. But it has to be careful and intentional and above all, sparing in its use. A little goes a long way.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 2022, 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.

Saints of Flesh, Chapter 1 by Tim W. Burke

The bones of this chapter are solid. There are some vivid and memorable images, and the story moves rapidly forward. Olivia is a strong character; her motivations are clear. There’s no question about what she wants or how she intends to get it.

My main questions have to do with the prose. It wants to be powerful and evocative, and it does achieve this to a degree—especially at the very end of the submission. That last sentence is just right.

Often however it doesn’t quite hit its mark. Phrasing can be awkward or syntactically incorrect:

It stabbed and scraped and sliced her from self-loathing.

The “from” is hard to parse. Sliced her away from it? Kept her from hating herself? Or is it meant to be “out of,” as the reason for the stabbing and the rest?

as he smiled back up to me

Should this be “back up at me”?

Sometimes images are odd or confusing:

every moment savored like a coming thunderstorm

The mixed metaphor acts like a speed bump—the reader has to stop to figure it out. Savoring the moment, that makes sense, but how does it connect with a potential weather event? How do they fit together?

Gretchen’s aura drooped with icicle prickles.

A similar thing happens here. How does an aura droop? And how do icicles prickle? Or droop?

The air stung of stale incense and alcohol.

Here too, the metaphor starts in one place and ends up in another. Or is it a typo? Is it meant to be the ungrammatical stunk, meaning stank?

Heart squirting with alarm

I’m not sure what the image is here. Squirting blood? Squeezing like the digestion a few paragraphs later? Is this another typo, or a word that isn’t quite the right one?

Some habits might bear rethinking, too. There’s a tendency to undercut an image:

a seemingly regretful glance, for example, or

He seemed spiteful for some reason

The context would be clearer and the emotional impact more effective without the qualifiers.

The underpinnings are there. It’s pretty clear what the characters’ arcs are and where they’re headed. Once the prose is tightened and clarified and the words and images are under control, both the story and the characters will come through more strongly.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Review July 2022, 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.

Five Sorties (V2) by Albert Chu

“Five Sorties” caught my attention this month with its softly postapocalyptic twist on mecha fiction, and how much plot it burns through in a relatively short space. It’s a big ride, and a wild one—but one with real heart. However, I think “Five Sorties” is sometimes hampered by the amount of terminology and technical information wrapped that it’s wrapped around a core that’s mostly about relationships. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we can give readers factual, technical information in ways that make it feel vibrant and alive.

The beating heart of this piece seems to be Nusrat and Andre: a gorgeous characterization of a pair of futuristic mecha pilots and their machine-mediated intimacy—how they fear it, embrace it, compromise with it when political machinations reach their door. It’s lovely to see Nusrat written as a religious person, and the way that informs her perspective on life and the Commander’s drive to prove their worth feels organic to me. Nusrat’s keen awareness of bodies when she’s trying to unbind gives a reality and depth to everything around it.

When the writing here is vivid and in-the-moment, it’s also extremely effective: the slow way the Thresher unfolds is very cinematic.

There are also some moments of very strong worldbuilding in “Five Sorties”—keen, sharp strokes that give me the flavour of this world. The description of Andre’s town establishes more about both him and the ruined United States quickly and effectively, and the bits of Nusrat’s family history are likewise doing a lot of work. Both moments succeed for me because they’re efficient: they build character context and relationship while also establishing facts about the world, hitting three goals in each sentence.

It’s how much each sentence does which is at the heart of how I think “Five Sorties” can get stronger. I think there’s room to refine how most of the story’s action is communicated. The author’s notes ask whether the worldbuilding and plot are clearly communicated, and I think that question’s a good one. To my eye, what’s happening is clear but can be somewhat lifeless and occasionally quite distanced—notably in the battle scenes, where as a reader I felt very separated from the stakes and action. That sameness of tone: factual statements, moving past readers at the same pace, tends to blur the plot and sand down which parts of it are important.

So my suggestion would be to think about how to make “Five Sorties” telegraph what kind of story it is: not just in what it says about the world and plot, but how it says those things. How the sentences move when it talks about them.

For an example, I want to take the first paragraphs, which are fairly factual, until the dialogue kicks in; it’s necessary setup, but the way they’re presented makes for a slightly dry and technical introduction, one that’s not giving readers the spirit of this story: action, ethical dilemmas, intimate relationships, pride, failure, heartwrenching duels, protection, destruction.

When thinking about how to make the first paragraphs of “Five Sorties” carry the heart and soul it’s describing, I don’t think this needs a change in content, just in presentation. There are a lot of tools I think you could use to get this job done.

First off and primarily, I’d think about varying up sentence structure and rhythm—longer sentences, shorter ones, ones which build rhythm in their paragraphs and read well aloud. In the first paragraphs, the waves moving in slow motion is an excellent hook for this. If there’s a way to make that sentence sound more like the rhythm of those waves—to encapsulate the thing you’re describing in how it’s described—that small touch can ground the story solidly in the sense of a real, kinetic world.

I’d also suggest giving more of a spotlight to the evocative images that are already there. Spotlighting and the amount of page space we give something are a clue to readers as to whether it’s important or not, and a lot of the muddle in the plot of “Five Sorties” is, for me, the lack of spotlighting to show which parts of it matter.

Again, in the early paragraphs, the golden sparks of the repulsor fields against the water are a great visual—there’s potential to grow it a little, linger on it, and let it take up more space. Likewise, the small support ships around the Kaina-Batra Unit give you a great opening to give readers a sense of scale: how big are we talking here? How much, how vast? There’s a chance to spend another half-sentence on that, and really paint a picture for readers to start with.

Another tool is thinking about more sensory information. There’s already a line here about rain hammering against the rest capsule; a note about its sound, its smell, the streaks it leaves on the glass could make this idea vivid and immediate without having to change the idea itself. Which aspects of the world and Nusrat’s experience can be grown into more vividness?

You might notice that all these strategies increase wordcount—and that’s a major decision I think the author’s going to have to make. The ways “Five Sorties” narrates over action, instead of delving into it can sometimes feel like a story straining against how long it is already; trying to get things across while cutting wordcount. I’d suggest that this story, told richly, might not be a short story—and that’s actually fine. There may be enough going on here to make novelette length make sense.

So finally, I’d suggest taking all these tools to make “Five Sorties” live, kinetic, emotional, vibrant—to take that technical and factual information and bring it to life—and then, just seeing how long the story needs to be. If it’s filling its natural length—if it’s longer when told vividly—then the longer form is the right decision, and there’s no sense in selling it short by trying to keep it short.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wrote with wonderful news: “Just wanted to let you know that Factor Four Magazine, a pro publication, just bought my story “Metaforming” which was reviewed extensively on OWW. Thanks to everyone who helped polish this story, which combines Pandemic angst, “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, and “Dr. Jean’s Banana Dance Song”.

Congratulations, Peter!

Editor’s Choice Award June 2022, 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.

Ylodch – Under A Darkened Sun Chapter 1, Revised, by J. Rokusson

This is an interesting submission, not only in itself but for what the author says about it in the author’s note. It’s not a first draft; it’s been revised with care and attention to prior critiques. There are things it’s explicitly trying to do, and questions for the readers of the earlier draft.

I like a good author’s note. It’s a great guide to the author’s intentions, and it gives this Resident Editor some directions to take in reading the submission. Here, I’m coming in as a cold reader. I haven’t seen the first draft. All I know is what I see here.

While it’s both fun and educational to compare drafts and discuss changes, if the work is going to be published, the only person who counts is the cold reader. The person who buys the book, who doesn’t know the characters or the story. If the author or the world are familiar, there may be preconceptions and expectations. But it’s still a new book, going off in new directions.

There are some intriguing things going on here. I love the imaginary unfriend—it’s a great concept, with lots of potential as the story unfolds. I get that there’s some portal fantasy going on here, and some sorcery, and for sure some swords. Or a sword. As far as I can tell, there may also be elements of impaired memory, either absent or tampered with in some way, so that what Azran knows or thinks he knows will shift from one moment to the next.

That’s an ambitious thing to do. It demands a great deal of the author’s craft, and expects a lot of the reader as well. It certainly can be done—I’m reminded somewhat of Gene Wolfe’s Latro in Soldier of the Mist and its sequel. But it’s not easy.

As the novel goes through further rounds of revision, I have a few thoughts.

First, I don’t mind a prologue, so put me on the Pro side of that argument. Labeling an introductory chapter a prologue can be useful in that it tells the reader that this is a separate section of the narrative. It generally takes place in the past, before the time of the main plot. It may address different issues, and it will set up essential backstory. The reader will expect a shift between the prologue and the first chapter, probably in time and possibly in setting or characters as well.

I get the idea of mystery. We don’t want to be told everything at once. We like to pick up just enough to keep us turning the pages, but not so much that it bogs everything down.

At the same time, we have to have enough clarity to understand what is happening in each individual scene. Mystery is good. Confusion, not so much. It’s a delicate balance.

In this draft, Azran is pursuing an agenda set for him by an unspecified they. He has orders (which seem to shift, as does his memory); he’s following them as closely as he’s able. Something happened yesterday—we get multiple references to this prior set of events.

What this ended up doing was make me wonder why the novel starts here. Why doesn’t it begin the day before? That’s when the precipitating events seem to have happened.

There must be a reason why it’s a mystery, but as the draft is written, it’s not clear what this reason is. The repetition of they and orders and yesterday needs more polish. Each reference should illuminate a little more, add a bit of new information to what we already know. There’s some of that in the draft, but it’s still more confusing than clear.

One thing that is getting in the way of clarity is the prose. The novel is still very much in the structural phase, still figuring out how best to construct its story and develop its characters; I would tend to suggest not getting too deep into a line edit at this stage. But a couple of stylistic changes might help make the story more comprehensible to the reader.

There’s some gorgeous imagery here, but there’s also a fair bit of awkward phrasing and “if one word is good, six is even better.”

The mountain looming above him: It’s clear what the mountain is doing. No need to explain.

With the gate materialised, his orders reclaimed a sense of impending realism: I’m not sure realism means what it wants to mean here. The passive constructions, the abstract concepts, move us away from the character and slow down the action.

A similar thing happens here: the earthy smell associated with underground caves became prevalent.

And here: High on her back, wings reached towards the ceiling, and her posture suggested she moved halfway from a crouch towards leaping into the air.

Think about how to tighten, shorten, transform from passive and abstract to active and concrete. Try to avoid suggested and seemed. Commit to it; make it definite. Think immediate and direct and active.

The tendency toward the passive and the prolix insulates the reader from the character, and filters away the sense of direct experience. We’re told the story from a remove, rather than living it with him. The words get in the way of the story, and the character’s emotions flatten out. It becomes harder for us to feel what he’s feeling—and when that happens, it’s also harder to keep turning the pages. We have to care, even if we dislike him. We have to want to know what happens next, and what he’s going to do about it.

Azran’s actions play into this as well. When he dropped his knapsack without seeming to care what happened to it, I wondered why he would do that. Is he under a spell? Why doesn’t he worry about losing his supplies? What makes him trust this strange place enough to dump his belongings? Not wanting the added discomfort seems like an odd and insufficient reason.

I’m not sure why he doesn’t know what he’s carrying, or why he hasn’t looked in the box or discovered the note. Wouldn’t he have made sure he’s properly prepared before he goes on the quest? If not, why is it essential that he only discover important information while he’s in the middle of his adventure? Again, it needs to be clearer (even if some mystery still remains) who has sent him here and why. Can we get a glimpse of them? A line or two flashing back to the giving of the orders? Something about how those orders, and the means of their being conveyed, may shift magically as he tries to carry them out?

It is clear that reality shifts as Azran moves through it. Some, he’s doing himself. The rest is being done to him, and apparently it’s part of the plot—presumably to be revealed as the novel goes on. But tighter, more focused prose and closer attention to the meanings of words will help readers as they try to follow what’s happening. Give them more clarity from line to line, and they’ll embrace the mystery. They’ll want to know what it all means, and where it’s going.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 2022, 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.

Diaries Of A Space Princess by Nora Schinnerl

I like the idea of this submission. It’s a nice riff on the fairy tale of the princess in the tower. Shifting it out into space and setting it in a high-tech future has the potential for some interesting and enjoyable storytelling.

The chapter as written needs some rethinking in order to work as a story. The author’s note describes it as an epistolary novel, but that is not actually what it is. An epistolary novel is an exchange of letters between two or more characters. If this were an epistolary novel, we would be reading letters written by the princess and presumably the king (or the king’s secretary), responding to each other and telling their respective stories in their own words.

The chapter presents as a proposal or detailed synopsis, a description of the story that the author wants to tell. The character exists at a remove. We’re not living the story with her; we’re being told the story by someone else.

The third-person narration could work if there were some clarification as to why the princess needs to tell her story in that way. What is she hoping to accomplish by filtering her experiences? How does the third person work in a way that first person can’t? Is she telling her story right now, or is she telling it in retrospect—as an older person looking back on what happened to her in the tower? Are her experiences too painful to tell directly? If so, we should have a hint of that, a suggestion that something is going to go wrong.

We should also be seeing more description of setting and background, and more telling of story. The diary should record dialogue and frame scenes, rather than presenting them in synopsis or summary. Even though the device of the diary presumes that we’re reading about events after the fact, we can (and should) still have some sense of direct and lived experience.

There’s another thing to think about, too. If the intended audience is young—and since the princess is eleven years old, by the rule of thumb for kids’ books, the readership would be a few years younger, say around seven or eight—if the storytelling is too indirect, young readers won’t stay with it. They’ll expect a diary to be told by the person who’s writing it, the “I” of first person. They’ll also want to know why they should want to read it. What is the story about? What does the protagonist want? What is she doing to get it? What factors are helping her, and what factors are getting in her way? What obstacles does she have to overcome in order to do what she needs to do?

I think young readers would also ask why she doesn’t have a friend, and if that’s the case, why she isn’t looking for one. She does try to turn the Blue Fairy into a kind of magical sidekick, but it seems strange that she’s so totally alone. Why can’t a robot be her friend? Enc is a possibility, but it needs to engage with her more, and have more of a personality. Or she needs to figure out how to make it develop one.

The princess reads young for eleven. An eleven-year-old is a late tween, within sight of her teens. She may already be having her period, and she may be starting to be interested in having a partner, though she probably won’t be thinking in sexual terms yet. Even if she isn’t interested, she probably will have some thoughts about it, even if they’re still the younger child’s “Eeeeuuuwww ick.”

It might help to read more widely in the middle-grade genre, to see how eleven-year-old characters are portrayed. How do they talk? What do they talk about? How do they feel about various things, especially school, parents, and peers?

Pay attention to the way the books are written, too. Voice is very important in writing for younger readers. By that I mean prose style, choice of words, the way the narrator describes the world and the people in it. The reader should be able to hear the character talking, especially in a diary. They should feel that they’re right there with the character, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling.

Study how published works in this genre tell their stories. How do they introduce their characters and settings? How do they set up the structure of the plot, and how do they move it forward from scene to scene?

Pacing is extremely important in writing for younger readers. Attention spans are shorter than older readers’. The progression of the plot should be clear and it should also be clear what the story is about, where the action comes from and where it’s headed.

In this chapter, I think shifting to first person would be a good first step. Then, opening up the synopsis into scenes with action and interaction. Write out dialogue. Give the king a voice; let him speak, and the princess will record what he said. Do the same for the mechanical inhabitants of the tower, and maybe think about giving them different ways of talking, different personalities and different voices.

Make sure we know there’s a direction to the plot. She’s in the tower, her father has shut her up there for Reasons. Maybe she could set about discovering what those reasons are. Can she start to become less submissive to her father’s wishes? Could she miss her past life more clearly? What about friends and family? Would she want to communicate with them? Would she understand why she can’t—for that matter, why can’t she? Why isn’t anyone else here with her? Why does she have to be alone? What danger is so great that no other human being can either be with her or know where she is?

There’s a lot to work with here. It begins by opening up the narrative and thinking through where it needs to go and how it needs to be told. Once that starts to happen, the story and its characters will start to come alive.

— Judith Tarr

 

Grapevine Market News

OWW alumni Joshua Palmaiter, has annonced  that his small press, Zombies Need Brains, is starting an online magazine called ZNB Presents. They are doing an open call for submissions July 1- July 7, 2022.

You can find the submission guidelines and submission links at the Zombies Need Brains Patreon. Keep scrolling past the locked posts and you will find the magazine info. Details about rights, pay, how to submit, etc., are all there as well. Feel free to submit! ZNB Patreon link: Joshua Palmatier & Zombies Need Brains are creating SF&F Fiction | Patreon