Editor’s Choice Award December 2021, 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 Algorithm In The Skies Above Chiloe by Rodrigo Culagovski

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé”: an alive, breathing, faintly William Gibson-esque future written with a great sense of cadence and a handful of interesting ideas around urban life and linguistic hacking. However, it doesn’t always handle all its information and ideas organically—and the ones it’s doing well with highlight the places it isn’t. So this month, I’d like to discuss information integration in worlds where we need readers to learn a lot quickly.

There’s a lot of smart craft choices being made to lay out the information-rich world of future Chiloé without stalling the story to a halt—and the opening is the biggest one. Opening with the opposing ends of the unfinished bridge works excellently to three purposes: establishing a strong opening image, establishing an early sense of conflict—why isn’t the bridge finished?—and setting up a core thematic symbol for the action at the heart of the story. Connected by fragile but strong ties, one side thriving with practical, diverse human and marine life, and the other the largest city still standing on Earth, patrolled by quasi-fascist armed guards.

By later on, it’s visible how that disconnected, restranding bridge can be a metaphor for Mila and Alex’s tenuous family connection, the Algorithm versus the Heuristic, humanity facing off against machines it made.

Why that’s important: What we open with can give readers an instant framework for what to look for in the story. It’s a subtle way of flagging what’s important in the piece, and it’s a tool for helping readers navigate a setting with a lot of information well.

The market at the base of the bridge is also just a great image: it’s rich and fascinating, the kind of place that springs off the page and eases readers into the story in a way that’s really productive for a science fiction thriller. If you think of the action of a story as breathing—moments of high action that punctuate moments of rest—we join “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” on one of the exhales, easing readers into this world when it’s less chaotic. It’s a quick way to get readers established and caught up in this world, and an appropriately slow introduction to Mila’s pretended slower lifestyle as someone ostensibly without network integration—a characterization bonus. When things kick into high gear after Mila’s detained, we have something to compare that rush of action to, making it feel sharper and more visceral.

It’s also a good choice to open with exploring a small place, before Mila gets up to exploring a larger one. As a reader, the bridge market was interesting, so I’m more willing to follow her exploration of Chiloé and more scene-setting on the other side of the bridge, having had a positive experience with that the first time.

There’s also a great handling of worldbuilding just through Mila’s opinions and watching others interact with it. Comments like the moving sidewalks “couldn’t possibly be safe” make the description more than just background dressing; they establish Mila’s opinions and personality and instantly relate the built infrastructure to everyday human living, making it concrete and real.

The metaphor of human neurology (portals “sphincter”, the kinesthetics of the sidewalks feel “wrong”) does the same: Chiloé’s infrastructure is relevant because it’s not just a backdrop, it’s a body—one that grows unevenly and has a number of parts working together, and one which people find ways to use outside the rules. Watching people like Tenche adapt that technology to their lives, rather than adapting their lives to the technology reinforces the organic feel of future Chiloé—and its realism.

But one of the smartest things “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” does to manage information is how it establishes conflict alongside all the things it tells us about this world. Immediately giving readers the clues that Mila is up to something suspicious—in how she tries to make the border guards think she’s not, in the samples she’s collecting, in her eating everything with sugars, the reveal that yes, she does have a net and is well-off—establishes there’s a question here (What is Mila really doing here? Why has she lied about the net?). The way those questions are paced out in clues moves the conflict forward even if, on the surface, all she’s doing is taking a tourist day and acting a little shifty. That sense of narrative motion, that we as readers are learning something more even if she’s just wandering, is enough to create conflict and stakes.

Once that explodes in Mila’s anime-like fight scene—and then immediately deflates because, whoops, wrong place (which is funny!)—there’s been enough buildup that it’s satisfying, and I’m already invested as a reader.

It’s a very smart way to overall handle an information-heavy setting, which is why, I think, it’s so notable in the places that aren’t quite working yet.

There are two aspects of the information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” that I think could be improved, and the small one is tightening up the dialogue. There are some conversations—with the border guard, with Carmen, with Alex—where the pace lags, and readers might not need all the small talk, but just a taste of it until Mila gets to the point of whatever that conversation is.

But the main thing I’d look at: a more subtle way to get the Algorithm backstory and current threat in than a hostage-scene video and an exposition-heavy argument. Compared to the way all the other information in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloté” is handled, this one’s a bit clumsy and unmoored from the rest of the worldbuilding.

The practicalities of the scenario are a little unintentionally funny: Where did Mila get time to carry in a documentary about the new genetically-based algorithm, and what would have happened if he’d woken up sooner—or later? Does she have to rewind the video and they sit in tight-lipped silence until it plays again, and she can restart her speech? It’s a solution where dramatics outweighs practicality in a story where that hasn’t happened to date. More importantly, it’s the place in this story where people stop talking like people and start talking and acting like conspiracy theories, and I’d be very interested to see how this would play out if Mila and Alex were—super-genetics or not—still talking and acting like people, in the same ways moving sidewalks didn’t make Chiloé a city without food hawkers. If this story, at this point, didn’t start working against everything it’s established about how people interface with technology and ideas.

So the main question I’d have for this piece: Are there ways, like with Chiloé, it’s possible to work some of that information in more organically—set it up to be paid off at the climax with Alex and make that conversation between Alex and Mila less performative? The same toolset that worked with the bodily nature of the city will work here: inference, people’s reactions to the facts, hints that build, opinions. Clues that finally add up to something in the climax are more effective, ultimately, than sudden reveals.

Obviously I don’t have the end of the piece—this is only the first 7,500 words—but it’s a fascinating world and a promising story, and I’d love to see how it turns out.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, 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.

Operation Spacewatch Chapters 1-3 by S. Writes

This submission hits a number of my sweet spots. Galaxy Quest. Fish out of water/aliens on Earth. Genre bookstores. Fanfic come to life. Misfit teens finding their fit (and presumably saving the world). I don’t have a problem with the flow, though I would be interested to see what would happen if the gun battle were popped back in—a lot depends on where it comes from and how it plays out and what events ripple outward from it.

The narrative voice is pretty sure of itself. It’s got the breezy tone and the quick rhythm that this corner of YA and this subgenre tend to go for. It moves along briskly, also a good thing for what it wants to be and do.

I have a few questions about the underpinnings of the story. The mood is gonzo and the genre is Adventure, but that makes it even more important to think through the reasons why people do what they do. The more solid the motivations are, the easier it is to believe in what’s happening.

There’s a kind of caculus in developing motivations. The why of the characters’ actions should come up to the level of the consequences. If they’re just doing something because it’s cool or fun or they feel like it, but if they get caught they’ll be thrown into ice moon prison for a thousand years, the two elements can feel as if they exist in separate plot universes. They need to balance each other.

In these chapters, the cadets are committing a galactic crime, but they’re more or less just doing it because Earthgirls are easy and it’s a cool, crazy prank. The fact the Meta isn’t working adds to the imbalance, because in this draft, there’s no explanation for it—probably because the scene in which it was explained was cut?—and nobody seems unduly concerned about it. We need to understand more clearly what the Meta does, why there’s no apparent security around it that the cadets have to elude before they make it to earth, and what the consequences are on all sides of that equation: for the cadets, for their superiors, and for Earth.

The same applies to their reasons for defying galactic law to invade Earth. The stakes are extremely high. Their motivations should match. Is there a game that all the cadets play, under the radar of their superiors, with some sort of powerfully tempting reward for whoever comes out on top?

Think about TikTok challenges, some of which are actively criminal—what do the perpetrators get out of it? Why are they willing to take the risk? These cadets clearly understand risk, and know right from wrong. Their choices to do wrong are intentional. Why? What is the payoff?

It has to be more than simple curiosity or even another few data points on the alien-behavior chart. If they’re committing a major crime, they need to get a major prize that makes it worth the price. Maybe they win the secret game and get all the cool points and the whole cadet universe will bow before them for years after. But that also means they have to take extraordinary measures to avoid being caught before they win whatever they’re trying to win.

What are they trying to win? Again, it has to be something big. Something extra special. Maybe there’s a rumor that the ultimate Pokemon has been seen on Earth, and if they score it, they win all the points forever and ever. Or there’s a super secret challenge with a clue that can only be found in a particular spot on the planet, that happens to be right where the bookstore is standing. If they find the clue, it will lead them to something tremendous, something outstanding. Some treasure, either physical or metaphorical.

Treasure hunters will literally die to find the secret stash. If the cadets are hunting treasure, that would explain why they’re so determined to break all the rules and risk criminal prosecution. It doesn’t need to be gold or artifacts, it can be something of value to their culture, that might be insignificant to Earthlings. But to them it’s everything.

The main thing is that the why of their coming to Earth should match the stakes if they fail. So should the obstacles they have to overcome—including the malfunctioning Meta. They can still have petty personal reasons: girls, peer pressure, curiosity. But the big overriding reason has to be a big deal.

This is particularly applicable to Gregg, who doesn’t even want to go. It’s clear that peer pressure is a major part of it, but what else could motivate him as well? Does he have a bet with one or more of the cadets, or possibly with someone from another ship? Is there something he personally hopes to find on Earth, that tips him over the edge from resistance to acquiescence? Does he have family history connected with Earth or with the ban on visiting the planet? His reasons in the draft are simple and rather flat. Adding layers and messing them up will make both the story and his character stronger.

Best of luck with revision. This is a lot of fun. I’ll look forward to seeing how it grows and evolves through future drafts.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, Fantasy

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

The Soul Carpets Of Maret (Prologue, Chapters 1 and 2) by Karen Dudley

There are some wonderful things about this submission. The worldbuilding is rich and deep. The prose is smooth and sure of itself. The magical system has lovely and unusual aspects. And I can see the scope of the epic in the range and variety of characters and settings.

The market right now is very, very tough. Above and beyond raw quality, a sample has to come in at just the right angle, at just the right time. It has to be just what the agent or editor is looking for, at that particular moment. All a writer can do is keep submitting, and keep hoping.

In this case there may be a couple of ways to sharpen the angle of approach, to catch that elusive moment of Yes! I want to see more.

For me as a cold reader, the submission truly comes alive in Chapter 2. The prologue and the first chapter create an intriguing and fully realized world, and there’s plenty of raw drama first in the chase and killing, and then in the funeral of the village headman. What’s missing for me is what Chapter 2 has in full and strong measure, and that is directness and immediacy. In Chapter 2, we are right there with Aram. We’re living the healing with him. We get a quick sense of who the victim is, and who Aram is, and what he’s doing there and how and why. We are there.

In the earlier scenes, events are filtered through the internal monologues of the central characters. We experience them at a remove, through layers of exposition and backstory.

Mona’s flight has plenty of drama, but it’s woven through with exposition and passive prose. And it’s aware of that. She urges herself repeatedly to focus. At the end of course, she is forced to; but then it’s too late.

Talayah is in much less direct personal jeopardy, but she too wanders through her personal, internal landscape, and like Mona, has to exhort herself to come out of her head and into the immediate and present world. In her case, the funeral is a powerful and affecting ritual, but is it actually the precipitating event for her arc of the plot? Or is that event the scene in which she is told that she must leave, and that she is to be the Dreamer for the entire kingdom?

That’s the point at which her life changes. That’s where the story is. That’s the scene I want to read.

As intriguing as the details of the village and its people are, are they directly relevant to Talayah’s journey? Will they move her forward along her path? Will it matter what kind of person the headman was? Has he done something to her personally that will affect her larger arc? If so, that’s the detail that needs to be in the narrative at this particular point.

What we do need, in the draft as written, is the part that’s not written out except in summary: when Romineh tells her she has to leave. Everything else proceeds from that, including her relationship with her best friend, and the way she feels about the funeral, and how she goes about the ritual.

Later on in the story, internal monologue and exposition and backstory can enhance the movement of the plot in interesting ways. At the very beginning, before the reader is invested in the characters, focus and immediacy are particularly important. We need to be be right there with them the way we are with Aram. Sharp focus; no filters. Let us live the story with them—and give us the scene we most need to see, that rises out of the background of the story, and leads us forward to all the rest.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, 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.

A Cure For Witching: Part Three by Lyndsey E. Gilbert 

It’s an interesting experience to jump into a story in progress for critique.  There are obviously disadvantages, since one doesn’t know what’s been previously established.  But there are also advantages, since the nature of this section can stand out more clearly by looking at it separately.

I haven’t read the other parts of this story, but I was quickly drawn into this part with the sense of change, with the narrator having to adopt a new wardrobe; and the sense of conflict between the narrator and her husband.  The excerpt has several strengths.  The world, with the Time Devoured and the Righteous Era, is quite intriguing.  I can feel the narrator’s concern about Cillian, which makes me feel tense about what he might do.  There are some moments when the story conveys well what the narrator is going through, such as, “It was less than a week ago but it feels like an age has passed. Like I am a silly mortal girl who stepped into a faerie ring for but a moment, only to stumble back out and find a thousand years has come and gone.”  The story conveys the strong bonds between the narrator, the mother, and Cloda well.  The mother comes across as a compelling character here:  “She smiles wanly, but some mischief sparks in her eyes. ‘I was no lady, nobody of any consequence at all before I met your father. I know how to survive in rags as well as I do in ballgowns.'”  Sorcha also intrigues me.  Many things remain uncertain and mysterious, which makes me want to keep reading to find the answers.  The story also has some evocative description, such as, ” I picture Father’s face, his wry smile and sharp features, his kind eyes alight with love and pride.”

One area that could be strengthened is the scene structure.  Each scene should show a change to a value of significance for the protagonist.  While things change in the three scenes included in this part, I don’t feel a strong change to a value of significance.  Such changes give us a feeling of the story moving ahead, provide a reason for the scene to be included in the story, and get us excited about what has been gained or lost.

In the first scene, the narrator seems to already know she must wear new clothes and get rid of her old ones, so that’s not a change.  She plans to send the clothes to her sister, and instead Cillian burns them, so that is a change.  But what value of significance to the narrator changes?  It’s not clear.  One possibility is that the narrator starts out feeling that her past will survive in some sense with her clothes going to her sister, and she ends the scene feeling that her past is being wiped out with the burning of her clothes. I get some hints of this, but it isn’t conveyed strongly.  To do so, we need to clearly understand at the beginning of the scene that the clothes represent her past, and by sending them to Cloda, the narrator feels her past is being preserved. Right now, the first indication that the clothes carry strong memories is given after Cillian starts throwing the clothes into the fire:  “But all I can think of is how each outfit carries memories, both good and bad, memories of Father, memories of my life before now.”  That is too late.  And it is telling us of the connection between clothing and memories without showing us the connection.  What is shown is this:  “I busy my hands folding an emerald gown with sumptuous silk skirts.”  This makes it sound like the narrator has never seen this gown before.  It is “an” emerald gown, not “the emerald gown I wore to the spring dance when I was fourteen.”  It is not “the emerald gown with the golden clover Cloda embroidered on the bodice for me.”  We aren’t seeing memories attached to the clothing before it is burned.  So the burning of the clothing doesn’t carry a strong impact or seem to show a change in a value of significance.  We need to feel that embroidered clover (or whatever) and all the sewing sessions she had with her mother and Cloda burning, and we need to feel her memory of the dance burning, etc.

This issue is connected to another one, which is the protagonist struggling to achieve a goal.  A story generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal, and in the process she’s changed.  In this context, each scene generally shows the protagonist either moving closer to achieving the goal or moving farther away from achieving the goal (or both, such as progress with a new complication).  These often comprise the changes to the values of significance.

Throughout this excerpt, the narrator’s goal is unclear to me.  The narrator feels passive and reactive rather than active.  Rather than struggling to achieve a passionately desired goal, the narrator reacts to the various things that happen to her.  That means I don’t know what values have significance for her, and that means I don’t know what would comprise a change to a value of significance.  Returning to the first scene, if I knew that her goal was to pack up her old clothes and get them sent on their way to Cloda before Cillian found out, and I saw all her efforts going toward that goal, then it would clearly be a change to a value of significance when Cillian interrupts the process and burns the clothes.  So giving the narrator a clear goal (or a series of goals) she is actively struggling to achieve in the story would strengthen the story and each scene and make these changes of significance clear and strong.

The second scene feels especially scattered, with the narrator reacting to many different things but having no goal she is struggling to achieve.  One possibility could be that the narrator has seen ghosts at church before and her goal is to behave as Cillian would approve (not act weird when she sees the ghosts she know will show up) because if she acts weird, Cillian will say she’s ill and prevent her from attending the rest of the funeral activities, where she wants to remember her father and bond with her mother and Cloda.  This would allow the narrator to continue to have the goal of honoring and preserving the past, as in the previous scene.  In this case, the ghosts would need to show up sooner and be more difficult to ignore (perhaps they would hover around her father and torment her father’s ghost), so the narrator would have to struggle to achieve her goal.  She might succeed at achieving her goal with the complication that she realizes the ghosts are after her father, or that the ghosts are after her, or that her vision of the past world is growing.  In that case, the change in the value of significance would be that she goes from thinking she can ignore the ghosts to realizing the ghosts are more powerful and threatening than she knew.

In the third scene, the narrator again seems reactive and without a consistent goal.  She might start the scene with the goal of having a good time, but that seems forgotten when the various monsters show up.  And it seems inconsistent with her previous desire to not provoke Cillian.  So I have a hard time understanding why she does what she does, and I don’t know why the monsters show up when they do, seemingly become more numerous, and then she either goes back in time or sees events from the past.  Things seem to happen for no reason, and I don’t know what the narrator is trying to achieve.  If she was trying to behave in a way Cillian would approve of but also have a chance to talk to her mother and Cloda, that could provide both external and internal conflict, and behaving well could become very difficult when the monsters show up.  I’d love to see her going through that struggle rather than seeming to forget her situation and screaming and running outside.  She could still fail to maintain self-control, if you want her to fail, but seeing her trying would make me understand her and like her more.

One other area I wanted to discuss briefly is that the exposition often feels like the narrator is thinking information to herself that she already knows (what I call an “as you know, self”).  For example, the narrator thinks, “In the Time Devoured the dead were mostly buried. Remains were exhumed when our new world was built. A world dedicated to clean living and faith. For thousands of years gravestones were erected, places to go to remember a loved one, to lay down flowers and keepsakes.”  The narrator knows this; there is no reason she would think it or explain it to herself.  In first person past tense, writers can often get away with this because it can feel like the narrator is speaking to a reader throughout the story.  But first person present tense generally gives us the feeling that we’re going through events with the narrator, not being told of the events by the narrator.  In that case, it’s usually better to include necessary exposition by having the narrator think about her opinion on the information rather than simply thinking the information.  For example, the narrator might think, “The fact that the dead in the Time Devoured were buried disgusted me.”  The story actually offers something like this immediately after the sentences I quoted above:  “I feel drawn to this idea but in truth I cannot bear the thought of lowering Father into the ground, allowing him to rot away. For me our way is preferable.”  Phrasing exposition in this way makes it feel more like a real thought the character would have.

I enjoy the world and feel growing tension over the situation.  The unanswered questions make me want to keep reading to find out the answers.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, 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 Shearing by Jamie Boyd

“The Shearing” caught my attention this month with its clear, accessible handling of complex relationships, an evolving Galician ranch community, and a character arc that transcends binary ideas of the world. It puts forward a nuanced set of questions to tackle, handles them with grace, and keeps the entire read thoroughly satisfying—mostly by how it deploys its most complex elements. So this month, I’d like to dig into interpersonal dynamics as worldbuilding—the worldbuilding that’s not about unicorns and mountains, but relationships—and how we can think about what readers expect to make it really work.

The best thing about “The Shearing” is, surprisingly, not the wild, spotted unicorns in the Spanish hills; it’s how the community around them lives in an interrelated web of choices and relations with those herds, each other, and the land. It’s a story about the consequences of unicorns, both personal and far-reaching—and because of that, one of the more unique and thoughtful unicorn stories I’ve read.

It’s also a story that employs a kind of worldbuilding seen more consistently in character-driven literary fiction: one that has no reason not to show up in genre fiction (see: Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Rivers Solomon), and which can give genre fiction a gut-deep emotional realism that creates lasting impact. Most of the worldbuilding in “The Shearing” is done between people, and it’s the textures of their relationships that we explore for plot, conflict, and resolution.

Technically speaking, everything we understand about worldbuilding on a more geological or magical scale applies to the universes of our fictional relationships. Readers learn a lot about what kind of worlds to expect from the facts everyone in those worlds takes for granted and the way those facts telegraph the underlying systems of our stories. For example, “people need The Spice to travel in space” gives readers a whole lot of information about what logic Dune runs on.

One of the core systems of “The Shearing” is that everyone in this story is a messy human being, no questions asked; that complex motivations, competing priorities, and different relationships with others are how people normally exist. It’s an important system and assumption to establish, because it’s where the core conflict of the story comes from: Maruxa’s struggles with that complexity, rooted in her yearning and resentment for the father she loves deeply to “for once really [see] all of me”.

“The Shearing” sets up this expectation in the first paragraphs by handing readers a balance of little contradictions: details that look like basic character and worldbuilding introduction but carry a lot more, because of the pattern they repeat. Maruxa hates how her body is treated, but is proud of it and insists she can do anything a boy can; her father is stern and emotionally distant, but devoted to stewardship of his land, traditions, and children; the rapa is dangerous, but draws necessary tourist money and prevents financial dangers; sacrificing colts prevents more loss through overgrazing and overpopulation. Maruxa’s brothers are having entirely different complicated relationships with their father just out of view, and every time one of them makes a major choice, it inflects how she and her father interact—just like in real life. There are unicorns—and everything readers bring to that word!—in a world where they’re ordinary animals; where there is no unique bond that grows just by being a unicorn and a girl, and then one grows anyways.

People are sensitive to patterns, whether we know it or not, and by consistently showing that each character is living in a space of contradictions—two things which are both at least a little true sitting together—”The Shearing” establishes the rules of its world, and shows readers what to look for: the space where those complexities develop.

As the pattern of complexity’s introduced, “The Shearing” grounds—and counterbalances—it with another classic worldbuilding strategy: supporting something newer or stranger with something quite familiar.

At its heart, “The Shearing” shows a clear, simple conflict familiar to genre readers: duty, tradition, and community versus individual needs, difference, and exploration. It’s basically the Spider-man question, just leading to a different answer, down different roads. While that world of people-are-complex is being established, beside it this very familiar conflict is built as Maruxa’s urge to warn the unicorns collides with her duty to her family. Genre readers are left with one very familiar thing to treat as a narrative “home base”, from which it’s possible to solidly explore what might be an unfamiliar setting and unfamiliar community needs.

The most crucial thing “The Shearing” does, though, is use that familiar conflict as a stepping-stone—and start to work it and the complexity of its world together. Once readers are in familiar territory and primed to look out for complexity, it’s quick to establish that the path of individual needs, fleeing, and freedom has consequences. Maruxa’s pressed into the rapa because her oldest brother has left “without a backward glance”—and there’s a world of her own hurt embedded in that phrase. And likewise, the world of tradition and duty isn’t even close to static: the rapa’s evolved from quasi-mystic stock breeding ritual to almost a public health measure. Both paths are real, vibrant, and potential positive choices.

As the piece slowly layers considerations and consequences—habitat protection, and then gentrification and Maruxa’s generation’s flight to the cities—at a pace that lets readers digest the last one before adding another aspect of the problem, all those questions continue to develop and evolve together. Having Demo changes Maruxa’s feelings toward her body; her changed sense of self affects the fate of the ranch; the ranch’s fate affects Demo and the family; Demo’s plight changes Maruxa’s reading of what her father’s chosen. By establishing needs and consequences on all sides, “The Shearing” remakes this fairly traditional binary conflict into something more like a real choice—and a much more compelling read. And it’s all because information’s managed at a digestible, sensitive pace for the audience—and because the story’s grounded in those endless interactions.

As always, other layers of craft have a real role to play in making that approach work. The organic complexity of the thematics and plot is supported by the sentence-level prose: a style that’s on the whole clean, transparent, and factual, but sprinkled here and there with phrases like “a wild blessing” and precise sensory details which act as the verbal unicorns in this space—a touch of wildness and grace.

The images and ideas “The Shearing” puts forward are also ones that work with the question it’s asking, rather than against it. How Maruxa thinks about her own tall, strong—indelicate—body (echoed in the wild unicorns’ less-valued colorings) inflects her choices when it comes to her family, her career, and the land around her: she thinks back to her own physicality and draws from that lesson to make the choices that come next. And ultimately, her relationship with her father explicitly parallels with Demo testing his limits and her realization that Demo’s discontent.

But what keeps it from being didactic is something important to point out: it’s Maruxa’s authentic experience with these questions. As readers, we see Maruxa reflecting, considering these similarities, and learning her own way. “The Shearing” doesn’t feel heavy-handed because readers aren’t being asked to consider the moral of the story; we are being asked to watch this one person struggle, think, and learn something a little larger than she had before—something that’s satisfying to watch because she earns it through active struggle. Letting Demo free and hoping the herd will have him isn’t the answer, but it’s an answer, and in a world where questions proliferate, an answer can definitely be enough.

There’s a lot to like here—and a lot of great, thoughtful craft being used to convey it. I think with just minor polishing, it’ll have little trouble finding a home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Member News Of Note

Yesterday, Charles Coleman Finlay, long time workshop administrator, won the 2021 World Fantasy Professional Award for his work as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A well deserved award. All of us at OWW want to offer Charlie our heartfelt congratulations.

Grapevine/Market News

Zombies Need Brains fully funded their latest Kickstarter, and submissions are open for their three new anthologies until December 31, 2021. The themes are Noir, Shattering The Glass Slipper, and Brave New Worlds. Payment is 8 cents per word advance, they do pay royalties, and they want original stories of 7500 words that fit the theme of the anthology you choose. Full guidelines can be found here. 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2021, 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.

Girl Who Died In The Mud (Chapter 2 of Unnamed Novel) by Oliver Benedict Charles Townsend

This chapter has some wonderful things going on. The language and the imagery are so rich, the worldbuilding detailed and immersive. It’s the work of a writer in love with words, skilled in wielding them, and deeply invested in their world and characters.

Epic fantasy is a good choice of genres for a writer who loves to write rich, leisurely prose. There’s plenty of scope there, and plenty of room for a deep dive into the minutiae of the world.

However, even the epic needs a certain degree of forward movement from scene to scene. There is movement here, and we can see the key event of the chapter as it happens: Nerys’ departure from Daeron and arrival at the Four Queens.

We do not see the precipitating event, the reason why Nerys is alone and desperate and looking for sanctuary. Presumably it’s in the previous chapter, but the way the opening sequence is written, it reads like an introduction to a new character. We’re shown the god’s-eye view of Nerys in the storm, then we narrow down to her viewpoint, and are told how she lost her sleeves, an event that happened weeks before. If we had already met her, we would know this; we wouldn’t need the explanation. We’d be told that she’s really regretting her lost sleeves tonight, and we, as readers from the beginning, would know how and when she lost them. Then we could move on to the immediate problem to be solved.

If she is a character we know already, and we’ve seen her do whatever she did to end up in this predicament, then the chapter needs to be tied in more clearly to its predecessor. More sense of following on from an earlier set of information. A phrase or two that points us back to the previous chapter.

If we haven’t met her yet, the structure of the story may require some rethinking. Something important has happened, but we haven’t seen it. What we see here is a part of a larger whole, and the rest has happened offstage.

Either way, when my eye moves past the gorgeous prose to the bones of the scene, I’m looking for more cowbell. More clear and present reason for her to make the decision she makes. A stronger driving force, apart from rain and insufficient clothing—she’s been dealing with the latter for weeks. Is this the first bad storm since the brawl? Has she tried to find replacement clothes, a blanket, a discarded sheet, something? Why hasn’t she tried, or why hasn’t she succeeded? What makes it all happen right here, and specifically now?

Prose stylists (and I am one, and struggle with this every time, every story or novel) have a strong tropism toward words and imagery, and a weaker one toward plot and structure. What tends to happen is that the words weave in and through and around each other, and the images pile up and up, and the words and phrases will echo and re-echo, but the underlying framework of story may lose itself a bit. In this chapter, in all the wonderful imagery, not a lot actually happens. What does happen, as I noted, is missing some underpinnings, whether a reference to earlier scenes or the actual scenes themselves.

A particular stylistic habit contributes to this. In small doses it can be quite effective, but when it becomes the main driver of the prose, it becomes somewhat counterproductive. That habit, along with the ongoing, sometimes multiple repetitions of the same word or phrase, ends up stalling the movement of the plot.

Take note of how many negative constructions there are in the chapter. Time and again, rather than stating a thought or an action directly, the prose talks about what wouldn’t, what isn’t, what’s not. Try turning these constructions around and transforming them into positive and active; and try stating them once, rather than repeating and recasting and offering alternative images. See what happens when the prose is pared and tightened.

Some of it will probably want to go back to its previous form. And that’s a fine thing. It’s part of the richness of the style. But some of the changes may make for more focused and intense storytelling. The plot may move more quickly, and the characters’ motivations, the reasons for their actions and the consequences that follow, may come through more strongly.

Best of luck in any case, and do keep the love of words and the depth of the worldbuilding. That’s strong and beautiful. It just needs a little polish, and some pruning here and there.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2021, 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.

Distant Stars Chapters 1-3 by Stephan George

This submission has an intriguing idea: people space-traveling virtually or telepathically when they can’t do so physically. The execution needs some work and some rethinking of how story works. What is here is primarily a form of synopsis, what the author’s note is calling exposition. It is that, but it’s also a summary, and a form of notes on worldbuilding.

The rules of writing are like the Pirates’ Code. They’re really just…guidelines. However, when a writer is learning their craft, or working on developing it, it can be useful to accept the challenge of a set of rules. Synopsis and exposition, for example, can be effective if they’re done well, but as with most aspects of the craft, a little goes a long way.

Here I would present the challenge to avoid synopsis and exposition, to find other, more direct and immediate ways to tell the story. The reader should feel as if they are experiencing events with the characters. Let us see and hear and engage our emotions in what’s going on. When there’s a passage of exposition, think about how to turn it into the lived experience of a character. Let the character act and react. Show us how they feel, what they see, what the world is like for them.

Dialogue is a particularly good place to practice transforming synopsis into story. It’s often misunderstood as a means of conveying exposition, but what it really is is a combination of character development through engagement and interaction, and movement of the story forward both in what the characters tell each other, and how they tell it. There’s a further problem for the writer, in that really good fictional dialogue doesn’t resemble real-world dialogue at all.

In the real world, most of what we say is filler. It’s stock phrases and conversational white noise—hello, how are you, I’m fine, what do you think of the weather. It doesn’t contain much if any information. It’s like background music: it fills up the silence.

Fictional dialogue is a very different animal. A skilled writer can turn filler into art. But a writer who is learning the craft has to learn to write dialogue first without filler. Whatever the characters say to each other, along with the choice of venue for the conversation and the “stage business” of action and reaction that surrounds it and serves as a frame for it, has to be directly relevant to what’s going on with the story at that particular point. It has to show the personality of each speaker, and it has to move the story forward.

In this submission, for example, the encounter between Arax and Darium consists almost entirely of filler. In real life, yes, they would go through the formulae of greeting and conversational throat-clearing, but a novel is the good-parts version. It zeroes in on what’s immediately relevant to the story. It lets the reader assume that the filler happens without actually having to devote bandwidth to it.

The reader is a tough customer. Their time is limited and the world is full of stories. If the novel in hand does not get to the story quickly enough, or if it circles around the story without actually getting into it, the reader goes away.

The writer’s job is to keep the reader reading. To keep the pages turning. And that means giving the reader the good parts, the chewy bits, the things that move the story forward—and trusting the reader to fill in the things that aren’t relevant right then and there.

It’s a delicate balance between telling the reader enough to avoid confusion and therefore frustration, and not telling them so much that they get lost in minutiae. The writer has to develop the skill of choosing scenes that develop the story and the characters, and choosing the details within those scenes that best convey the information that the writer wants the reader to know.

The conversation between Arax and Darium is our first meeting with either of them. What we need to know here is something of their relationship to each other, both personal and professional. We also need to know why this conversation exists in the narrative. What purpose does it serve? How does it move the story forward? And the toughest question: Does it need to exist at this point in the novel? Does it need to exist at all? Or can the story begin with Arax’s arrival in the Transport Tower? Is there anything in the conversation that can’t be conveyed in a later and more compact scene?

The same applies to the conversations between Taia and Flavia. How much of what they say to each other is relevant to the story right then and there? Are there other things they could be talking about? Might the progression of the story be clearer if they said more about where they’re going and why, and what is going to happen there?

We do get a sense of the characters from their gossip, but we might also benefit from further layers of emotion in both Taia’s internal reactions and Flavia’s external ones. Can we get more of a sense of how they feel about each other, and about what’s happening today? Can we go deeper into Taia’s feelings?

It’s not a matter of adding word count so much as of making every word count. If we dispense with the filler, there’s lots of space for the good parts: thoughts, feelings, emotional and physical reactions. A skiller writer can convey a tremendous amount in a few words. A look, a gesture, a physical reaction. Maybe Taia’s head hurts or her hands are cold or she’s twitching inside; maybe she feels she has to be there, but she hates it. Maybe she wishes she had the courage to refuse, or to walk out. (Or is that not allowed? Is this event compulsory? Can she stay away, or can she leave?)

The more direct and immediate the story is, the more engaged the reader becomes. Then they’ll be drawn in, and they won’t want to leave until they turn the last page—and they’ll be sad that it’s over. Always leave them wanting more. That’s as solid a rule as you’ll find in the Pirates’ Code.

–Judith Tarr