Editor’s Choice Award September 2020, Horror

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

The Other Side of Midnight (Dialect Ask) by Paul O’Neill

The opening quickly draws me in as Charlie and his friends are attacked by a pair of bullies.  The bullies seem to pose a serious threat, so as the conflict intensifies, the suspense rises.  And as Charlie’s friend, Gavin, deteriorates and begins to ramble about the “lightning lady,” my anticipation about where the novella is leading grows.  That works well.

Since this is the opening scene from a novella, I won’t talk about overall plot and character issues.  Instead, I’ll focus on style and viewpoint.

The dialogue uses quite a bit of phoneticization or eye dialect, words misspelled to reflect their pronunciation.  In this case, the characters seem to speak with a Scottish accent.  I recommend against using misspellings in most cases, for several reasons.  First, it’s a barrier for many readers.  As I’m reading the excerpt and come to some dialogue, I see a bunch of words (misspelled) that I don’t recognize, so I’m brought up short.  The flow of the story stops, I’m thrown out of the story, and my eyes jump ahead to see how much dialogue there is to decode.  I try to pick out a couple words I can understand to get the overall meaning of the dialogue, and then jump ahead to the end of the dialogue.  When it’s clear I didn’t understand the dialogue sufficiently, then I go back over it again and try harder to understand it.  At this point, I’ve completely lost the sense that events are unfolding and have separated from the story.  Then I have to try to get immersed again after the dialogue ends.  So it’s quite disruptive, and I don’t think it’s adding anything to the story.

Second, these sorts of misspellings generally suggest the speaker is speaking incorrectly and imply a negative judgment about the speaker.  No one actually speaks every word exactly as it is spelled.  But we usually spell the dialogue correctly, and the reader gets a sense of how the character speaks based on word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, and syntax.  I suggest using these elements rather than misspellings to indicate the accents of the characters.  Some of the dialogue already does this.  For example, taking some dialogue from the story and spelling it correctly, “Time to shut that big gob of yours, man,” “Or what, you nothing bastard?” and “Mike Tyson stuff there, likes.”  These all give me a clear sense of the characters’ accents.  The misspellings are unnecessary.  Strengthening these elements throughout would convey the dialect without the phoneticization.

There is an additional problem in that there’s a disconnect between the dialect and the narrative.  This relates to a weakness in the point of view, which I’ll talk about first.  While we are clearly receiving sensory input through Charlie, the POV rarely gives us a sense of Charlie’s thoughts or emotions.  The thoughts and emotions become a little more common after Charlie discovers the pencil in his hand, but I never really feel close to Charlie.  The long paragraph beginning, “Charlie had drawn every day” seems like a belated attempt to introduce us to the character and provide an explanation for his words after the fact.  I think the novella will be much stronger if the POV is more psychically close to Charlie.  As is, I feel somewhat distant from the characters and events, which means I don’t care about them as much as I might.

Drawing us psychically closer to Charlie isn’t just about giving us a stronger sense of Charlie’s thoughts and emotions.  It’s also about choosing sensory details that Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  When Charlie’s friend Gavin is hit by a brick, the details provided are a rivulet of blood on Gavin’s forehead and the reflection of rustling leaves in the blood’s surface.  For me, a rivulet isn’t enough blood to show a reflection of leaves, so I don’t get a clear image from that.  More important, though, is this reflection of leaves really what Charlie is focused on as he kneels beside his injured friend?  I would think he’d be frantically trying to figure out if his friend is okay–conscious, coherent–and trying to spot the bullies who threw the brick, to determine the level of threat.  In the next sentence, we get details about Charlie’s other friend–what the friend is doing, what he’s wearing, and how his shins look below his shorts.  Again, this doesn’t seem to be what Charlie would be focused on.

As I mentioned above, bringing us psychically close to Charlie is both about including sensory details Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  The descriptions, though, do not use word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, or syntax to give us a sense that Charlie is Scottish.  The narrative voice, to me, feels like American English, while the dialogue feels like Scottish English.  That increases my distance from Charlie.

I don’t know how important it is that these boys are Scottish and this story is set in Scotland.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the story thus far.  My suspicion is that this “lightning lady” is going to connect to some Scottish myth.  If it is important to the story, then my suggestion would be to cut most of the eye dialect, indicate the dialect through those other elements, and turn down the dial on it from 9 to 3.  Then I’d suggest increasing the sense of Charlie’s dialect in the narrative, turning the dial up from 0 to 3.

One other point I wanted to mention is that many times in the excerpt, the pronoun he is used to refer to Charlie, but it’s not clear that it refers to Charlie.  Since all the characters are male, you need to clearly put the focus on Charlie, by name, before replacing his name with he.

A more in-depth discussion of dialect is available in Odyssey Podcasts 127 and 128 by Nisi Shawl here:  https://odysseyworkshop.org/podcasts.html.

I enjoyed reading this excerpt, which left me excited about where the novella is heading.  I hope this is helpful.

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

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Everyone knows the story of the genie in the lamp, or some magic coin or creature that grants three wished. Part of that story is how the hero would outsmart the magic granting them their wish. Most of the time that effort fails.

So how would you outsmart the magic and have endless wishes granted? Now write a story about it.

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

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

 

Publication News

J, Rachel Kelly wrote with the most exciting news — her first sale!  “Hi! I’m writing to notify you that my short story, work-shopped on this site and in my library shelves, “Six minute Steep” has been published on the online journal The Big Whoopie Deal. This is my first publication and I’m supper excited to share this news.”

You can read her story here.

Editor’s Choice Award September 2020, 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.

Far From Every Strand by Kate Wooderson

“Far From Every Strand” captured my imagination this month with its remote setting, brutal economics, and the beginnings of clean, stark lines of conflict and power and beauty that bring one of the best attributes of literary fiction into a genre setting. It’s evoking modern colonial-era literary fiction in both content and (partially) style, but doesn’t quite read finished to me yet on the sentence level. This month, I’d like to talk about strategies for cutting, tightening, and polishing prose: getting the tone of a story to shine through.

The plot of “Far From Every Strand” is stark, simple, and dignified: an interesting inversion of the selkie trope that feels rich and lonely and troubled. It’s bolstered by highly effective imagery: the flayed girl is a powerful way to drive the point home in one image—believable as the kind of vision that would motivate John to action—and the kineticism of the last lines is deeply effective.

I haven’t seen the prior draft, but think John’s participation in the sealing wouldn’t harm this piece overmuch: a lot of what it’s examining on the thematic level is moral ambiguity, finding a way to right and wrong, and violent systems rather than individuals, and I’m not sure pulling off a character arc that addresses those things requires a protagonist who is and always has been Right™.

Because of that tone wafting through—huge, unpopulated spaces and the harshness of sealing—and the associations it can make with whaling fiction, New Zealander and otherwise, my major suggestion for making “Far From Every Strand” stronger would be concision.

There is deeply beautiful language in this piece: He’d been a clerk long enough to conceive a hatred for quill driving, a planter long enough to realize he could not stomach slavery, and a colonist long enough to know he had no great desire to settle is an elegantly balanced, gorgeous sentence that manages to be thoroughly evocative in a way that’s carrying no extra baggage. It’s rich with wordplay, texture, and character information in a way that doesn’t feel crowded or overstuffed. However, there are other spots in the piece where information is being mulled a few beats too long or reiterated, where sentences are unbalanced, where the pace drags.

The question: how to align some of the phrasing and pacing and a theme of spare-but-rich places with that strength in the author’s style, and make them all work together. Or in short: How to bring the rest of the piece consistently up to its strongest points?

There are a whole double handful of approaches to trimming a piece down and looking into pacing without losing meaning. First—and maybe easiest—is to find places where extraneous words and what a lot of writers call scaffolding could be cleaned out of the prose—for example, “Chill seawater soaked the hem of his coat” edits quickly to “Chill seawater soaked his coat hem”. The result is a tighter, more concrete voice.

Another way to do this is to find active and interesting verbs that could incorporate description without adding adjectives. For example, “The slanted beach rose into a glacial valley shrouded by mist” can be tightened by trying “The beach slanted into” and pulling that sense of motion into the verb itself. Fewer words but stronger words, and nothing’s been lost.

There’s also a strategy for finding places where one on-target adjective could replace two or three that aren’t as precise: for example, “A sweet honeyed fragrance rose from the forest and mingled with the smell of salty foam” has the same meaning but a lot more concision and precision as “A honeyed forest fragrance” and “the salt of seafoam.” Readers will fundamentally expect honeyed smells to be sweet, seafoam to smell salty, and something described as salty after a smell is described as sweet to also be a smell; it’s a place a writer can rely on readers’ existing knowledge and assumptions.

Finding places where implications are being spelled out explicitly—where that readerly assumption could fill in that blank tidily without on-page help—is another good site for shortening and cutting. For example, “She laughed. ‘We’re not afraid of empty ocean. We are the daughters of the seas'” might not need that second phrase: it’s quite apparent why a selkie wouldn’t fear empty ocean; they live in it.

Finally, there’s space in clearing out potential false trails. For example, the sequence in the last paragraphs where the crew mock and berate John overstates the case by a lot, and draws parallels between the selkies and homophobia that aren’t supported in the rest of the story. It’s a late lead, and one that doesn’t go anywhere—John is already leaving. The readers have already figured out that the crew is morally poisoned. If there’s not enough work being done by those insults, do they need to be there?

These are all examples and suggestions—obviously, we each find our own ways to tighten prose while keeping in our own voice!—but with this, as in a lot of things, when we make a handful of smaller adjustments they add up to something more. It’s, at the core, about thinking through one’s prose from readers’ perspective—what might be obvious, what the story’s already told them, what they need to move forward—and adjusting accordingly.

There’s a lot of beauty in this piece, and a lot of smarts. Once that signal’s finely tuned, I think this will have little trouble finding a home.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 2020, 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.

The Thaw Of Neptune, 06 Dulmer by Joseph Bixby

There’s some good, solid hard-SF stuff going on in this chapter. Plenty of action, too, and some interesting characters.

For this Editor’s Choice I would like to talk more generally than specifically, about a couple of authorial habits that stood out for me as I read the chapter. I find it fascinating that these habits tend to come in clusters. It’s as if everybody who’s writing and publishing decides to do the same things at the same time. Recently I’ve noticed two tendencies in published works that I’ve read as a reader, and in mss. that I’ve read as editor.

1. Italicized internal monologue

This has been cropping up a lot lately. Characters narrate their own story. They react to what’s happening, register opinions, make plans. They do this regularly. Sometimes it’s every paragraph or two. Paragraph, commentary, paragraph.

I’m not sure where this started. It’s been around for a long time, but I’ve noticed an uptick in the past year or two. It seems to be a way of asserting the viewpoint and registering the character’s thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s meant to punch up the neutral narrative with a layer of personal observation. Rather than straight exposition, we get the character’s perspective.

I do wonder though, how much it adds to the story. Does it enhance the reader’s experience, or does it distract from the flow of the action? Does the commentary clarify the narrative, or can the narrative stand on its own? What does it want to accomplish? How does the story change with it as opposed to without it?

If the answer is that the story needs that commentary at that particular point, then the story needs it. If it’s a distraction, or if it doesn’t add anything that isn’t already there, then it can go away. It’s up to the author to decide what works for the story they want to tell.

2. “Floating Heads” dialogue

Confession: I’m prone to this when writing draft. Characters go back and forth in rapid exchanges without much or indeed any stage business or framing. When I’m taking dictation as I often am, it all makes sense to me, but when the editor gets their eyes on it, the reaction can all too often be, “Whut?”

One of my editors calls this form of dialogue “floating heads.” Lots of talk, no backup. In small doses it can really work. It’s fast, it’s lean, it moves things right along.

Longer passages are a harder sell for the reader. If they have to stop and go back and figure out who is speaking, that’s a distraction from the story. Even if the speakers are clearly labeled (and this chapter for the most part they are), the story may need a little bit more. A gesture, a facial expression. A brief visual to let the reader see what’s going on, where the conversation is taking place, how the speakers look, act, sound. What are they adding to the bare words of the script? How are they fleshing it out?

It doesn’t have to be a lot of exposition or description. If there’s too much stage business, that’s distracting, too. But a line here, a phrase there, can make an amazing amount of difference. It’s just a matter of figuring out where it will have the best effect.

— Judith Tarr

Grapevine/Market News

OWW’s Joshua Palmaiter, founder of Zombies Need Brains small press, has just successfully funded a Kickstarter for three new anthologies of science fiction and fantasy short stories. The open submission window is now open. ZNB pays an advance of 8 cents per word, and stories should be no longer than 7500 words. You can find submission guidelines and information about the three anthologies here.

Editor’s Choice Award August 2020, 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.

 

Drunken City by Beth Berg

This chapter has some interesting worldbuilding and an eerily compelling narrative style. It seems to be set in a dystopian future, maybe not too distant from now, but far enough to feel just a bit strange. It’s not clear where it’s set, whether on Earth or on another planet; that’s something I would expect to find out as the story unfolds.

It’s labeled fantasy, but that doesn’t lock it into any particular planet or era. What that does for me is suggest that the plot will resolve through some form of magic or the supernatural rather than through technology. Again, the rest of the novel will tell me if I’m right about that.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out for aid in revision. The movement of the story is clear enough in the draft, though I would suggest a couple of simple copyediting-type fixes to help the reader follow the narrative. When a viewpoint shifts, for example, start a new paragraph. That way, the reader knows to expect the change. The same applies to dialogue. New speaker, new paragraph.

The prose, word by word and line by line, needs a fair amount of work. The ongoing echoes and repetition can be effective if they’re calculated carefully, but make sure all the words mean what they need to mean. Instance here, for example, actually should be a slightly different word, instant.

Think too about whether the repetitions make the story stronger, or whether it could use more variety in choice of words and phrases. Note the frequent flyers: yelled out, for example, and seem and appear in various forms, and surprise. Can some or all of them be replaced with other words or phrases?

Watch for passive voice and passive constructions. Think about how to make them active. People doing things make for stronger story in general than people having things done to them. The same applies to things happening. If there’s a subject to the verb, instead of a passive “was done to,” it moves the story along more briskly and pulls the reader with it.

And finally, adverbs. There’s a school of thought that says we should kill them all. I don’t agree with that, but I do think that with –ly words, a little goes a long way.

This chapter has a lot of adverbs. Try taking them all out and see what happens. If the sentence stops making sense without its adverbs, are there other ways to get the meaning across?

Especially with dialogue, how a character says something is important. But rather than tagging with an adverb, try indicating tone or intent through the words the character chooses and the actions that accompany it: stage business, so to speak, gestures or movement. Tone of voice, too, and expression, or body language in general. There are all sorts of ways to get the job done without adverbs.

Then if an adverb still seems to be indicated, go for it. Just remember the maxim here as in everything else: Less is More.

–Judith Tarr

Member News Of Note

Kevin J. Miller wanted everyone to know about a special event: “A short play I wrote, “A Dagger in Your Mind,” will be online September 2, 1 PM, Greater Chicagoland time. The venue is Congress Theatre Cwmbran, YouTube and Facebook.”

Editor’s Choice Award August 2020, Horror

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

The Trouble With Townhouses by Michelle Tang

This story has some delightfully creepy details.  I get quite excited by the idea of a woman living between the walls, which is horrific to imagine, and by the ghost of the woman who once lived between the walls.  The plot has some good escalation as the sounds Agathe hears grow and evolve.  One particularly nice description is “My heart was pounding so loud it was as though she was knocking from the inside of my chest.”  The whispering from the air vents is disturbingly easy to imagine.  The situation escalates further as the hidden bricked-up doorway is discovered and Agathe finally sees the space between the walls and the skeleton “in the bed so close to where I slept that we might have been lovers.”  That’s very nice.

I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

Agathe’s actions in the story could be better developed.  Right now, Agathe complains about the noise to her neighbors, starts sleeping in the basement, discovers the missing space, learns the previous tenants complained about noises, tries headphones, and then the flooded basement leads to the discovery of the hidden door.

For me, the actions don’t seem to be in the order that they would really occur.  I would think she would try headphones within the first week of hearing the noises, not months later.  And I think she would try that before she’d start sleeping in the basement, which would require getting a cot and/or getting help to move it into the basement.  It also seems like she’d complain to the landlord around the same time that she complains to the neighbors.

While the presence of the ghost grows stronger as the story goes on, the actions of the narrator, Agathe, don’t seem to escalate alongside it.  I wonder if she might hang a tapestry or rug against a wall where a lot of the knocking occurs (perhaps the wall beside her bed), and then might start pounding against the wall to get the person on the other side to be quiet, and then pound with a hammer against the wall, and then crawl alongside her cats to try to find the shifting source, and maybe crawl so much her knees get bloody, and maybe she hears sounds downstairs and rushes down the stairs and falls.  I think there’s quite a bit of room for escalation on Agathe’s part.  I don’t believe she’d stay in the townhouse once she realizes the doorway is open and the sounds have moved into her house.

I never feel Agathe is in danger, either due to the ghost or due to her own actions, so nothing much seems to be at stake.  Usually in a ghost story, there is a physical or mental threat to the protagonist, or both.  At first, I think the story is foreshadowing a breakdown for Agathe, when she loses control and speaks so rudely to the neighbors, and with descriptions like, “as though a little old lady could be dangerous” and “The image of a crazed woman, wiry grey hair wild about her face.”  Yet Agathe seems to be rational and pretty calm through most of the story.  How does the ghost pose a threat to Agathe?  She loses sleep and gets crabby, but that’s about it.  I offered some suggestions in the previous paragraph that could lead to physical dangers.  Some other physical dangers could come from the ghost.  Maybe she pounds so hard on a wall that a large, heavy framed photograph falls and almost hits Agathe (or does hit her).  Maybe Agathe hears whispers out of the plumbing, like from the sink drain, so she plugs it up.  The ghost then makes water pour out of the sink faucet and overflow to the floor and Agathe slips and falls.

What mental threats could the ghost create?  Does Agathe come to think of herself as trapped, and does she start knocking on the walls in hopes of being freed by the person on the other side?  Does Agathe think Claire rejected her (maybe she wanted to live with Claire) and consigned her to this lonely townhouse?  Agathe seems to have no friends and no activities.  Does she perhaps start out with a friend but then get in an argument with that person about the voices and lose her friend?  Does she start to hallucinate from sleep deprivation and attack Bobby?

The events could also have a stronger causal chain.  Generally, one event in a story should cause the next, and so on, so events don’t seem to happen randomly.  When an event seems to occur without a cause, it feels like the author is making the event happen.  The causal chain gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference by the author.  Right now, the basement flood occurs without any clear cause.  I don’t know why the ghost would be able to do this, and I don’t know why the ghost would do it at that point.  Some research into basement flooding may help.

Several elements are set up but don’t pay off.  The neighbors are one and the cats are another.  Having pets die has become a cliché in horror, so I’m not recommending that.  But perhaps the cats could provide some clue that leads to some action by Agathe.  Or perhaps the cats could turn on Agathe and attack her, possessed by the ghost.  Or maybe the cats meow into the air vent and hear an echo of a meow in return.  Perhaps the human skeleton in the hidden space is accompanied by a cat skeleton.

As far as the neighbors go, if Agathe starts banging at the wall with a hammer, maybe the vibration knocks something over in Bobby’s bedroom and it hits him in the head and Stephen comes over, angry.

The story seems to be missing a climax.  The hidden space is revealed, but there’s no resolution to the conflict between Agathe and the ghost.  I’d love to see the ghost, now free of her little space, doing whatever she wants to do to Agathe, and Agathe trying to escape the house.  Perhaps her only escape–driven by the ghost–is to go into the little space where the ghost lived, and perhaps the ghost traps her in there.  Then Agathe can tap.  And perhaps she’d hear the ghost taking over her life, going to live with Claire.  That would be a disturbing end to the story.

Another element I want to discuss is the voice.  For me, the voice feels like it belongs to someone who lived in some past time, like 1900 or earlier.  It doesn’t sound like a senior citizen in current times.  The first paragraph is an example of this old-fashioned voice.  You could move the setting to an earlier time or update the voice.  To update the voice, my suggestion is that you talk to some seniors around Agathe’s age and record them.  You could also look for videos of seniors online, or look for nonfiction books written by seniors in the last few years.  I’m also wondering if Agathe has a cell phone and would text Claire.

A couple very small things.  I don’t know who Annie is.  And I thought the missing space existed only in the top floor, not in all the floors, including the basement.

I hope this is helpful.  I really enjoy imagining the situation you describe.

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