Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

A Knot Of Silken Memories by Shannon Walch

“A Knot of Silken Memories” got my attention this month with its treatment of intergenerational memory and a rare moment of emotional insight. I think it’s in a much earlier stage of development than the author might be thinking—but also that it’s a piece well worth developing. So this month, I’d like to talk about strategies to build out early-stage sketches into something wide, deep, and memorable.

There’s a lot of foundation already laid in “A Knot of Silken Memories”: a working magic system, central characters with tangible history in their relationships, and the lacework motif binding it together in a way that’s structurally pretty pleasant—that idea of knit shawls connects the rest of the story elements just like the peacock tails. There’s also a nice hand with prose. Even in a piece this brief, there are some lovely lines in here: “all grey and brown in expectation of both winter and mourning” is clean, fine, and evocative in equal measure.

There are some notable gaps in the draft; places where information’s missing. The sense of place and time are quite ambiguous (French sometimes, a slightly fairytale-feeling England in others), emotional arcs still somewhat erratic (how does Jeanne move from the contempt of “the fish-scented spit of soon-to-die worms” to explaining the Countess’s humanity to her own daughter?), and the heart of the story—the narrating, the knitting—can feel a bit brushed-over and passive. Names like Countess Whipstaff and Miss Knitter are a little on the nose, and that sends a mixed signal to me, as a reader, about what kind of story this is: fairytale allegory?

The most important thing I’ve taken from this draft, though, is that “A Knot of Silken Memories” isn’t quite structured as a story yet; at this stage, it’s more a beginning concept. If we pull back from the plot of the piece, it’s mostly a demonstration of the idea—there are people who knit memories into shawls—and how that would technically work, sort of like a trailer or demo for the concept itself. The characters and plot we have are just enough to hold that demo: a way to think about the idea aloud.

I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a stage a lot of story ideas go through—how would this interesting speculative idea work? In what situations, and what are its mechanics? The important next step for us as writers to take, though, is to ask: And knowing how it would work, then what? What would I have to say to other people using that idea?

There’s a switch in thinking that happens here in us, in our own heads, that’s crucial to making a story that sticks with readers. As writers, we have to make the hop from Isn’t this idea neat? and building a box to hold it, to making of the idea itself a box to hold something we want to explore or speak about. Instead of a goal, the fun fantasy element has to become one of the tools. That’s the point at which we’re not just demonstrating the thing that struck us as cool; we’re writing a story that moves and works on all levels.

And the thing is, I really do think “A Knot of Silken Memories” has the seeds of something to say. There’s a legitimate insight in the end of this piece: that different people in a family see the same things through completely different perspectives and contexts, and it’s a disorienting, heavy, complicated thing to see yourself through the eyes of a parent or caregiver. (And I’m saying that as someone who inherited her grandmother’s diaries.) That split in perspective can be painful, powerful, and revelatory, especially when people express love in different ways, or there are different goals and lots of disappointment. There’s a lot to talk about in that one line—and a lot of places to take that idea. This piece has, even in early draft, hit something real.

So what I’d mainly suggest for this piece is to chase that truth at its centre—and push everything deeper and farther.

It’s not difficult to start building a story into more: the first step can just be looking at what’s here, and going Okay, but then what? and What are the consequences of this worldbuilding? or But how do these people really feel and impact each other? Natural consequences are a great way to generate plot; sometimes all we have to do is follow them.

Another great way to do that—to turn the speculative mechanic into a tool to say something bigger—is to ask ourselves a series of questions about what made the idea stick in our heads in the first place. Every piece starts somewhere; there’s something in it that compels us. If we get back to what we found compelling enough to write it in the first place, we can often find what we’re saying—and then get about saying it more deeply or clearly.

Another strategy we can use alongside asking good questions is to look at those gaps in the draft as not problems, but available working space. If there’s space where something should be, there’s space to plant more story, more depth, and more texture there without disturbing the basic structure of what we already have. So I’d also suggest using those missing pieces as the equivalent of empty planters in a garden: they’re the first spaces you can use to pursue what you want to say, once you’ve nailed down what that is.

Finally, we can look at the characters: What facts do you know about them that got left off the page—but make for interesting story, new conflict, or potential? The solution to deepening a piece can sometimes lie in what else the characters have going on—and how it connects to or clashes with the things this draft’s already said.

So there are a variety of approaches here: ones we can use in combination or on their own to find what else is living in the world of “A Knot of Silken Memories”. And I think growing this piece in a deliberate way—a way that makes its speculative element the tool to say something bigger—has the chance to make a story that’s honest, adventurous, and affecting.

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 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.

The Flight Of The Ladies’ Helium Society by Robyn Hamilton

“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” caught my eye this month with a nod to Victorian adventure fiction, wide worldbuilding, and However, it’s not yet hitting its full potential, and can read, at times, more like the outline than the story itself. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding details: how, where, and why we use them—and how that changes how our stories read.

“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” has all the set pieces necessary for an interesting, wild adventure: dirigible-flying scientists questing for helium in an implied energy crisis, Victorian-style scientific societies, sabotage. It’s efficient with its opening paragraphs: they immediately evoke subgenre and atmosphere—that Waterman and Bentson’s expedition isn’t precisely being celebrated—and introduces a problem inside one scene: the rivalry between them, and gender equity in their field.

However, the way it uses detail and information doesn’t strongly address those questions—the ones the story itself has given readers as being important.

It’s very worthwhile, for this piece, to think about the details that get glossed over. “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” isn’t quite being deliberate yet with where it’s specific about action, and how much—and what that tells readers about which parts of the story matter.

Sometimes those specificities aren’t, in my mind, serving the story as well as they could. For example, some of the in-subgenre metaphors (Mrs. Bart being “more ballast than dirigible” particularly) are a little too on the nose. There’s an opportunity there to widen out Waterman’s world a bit, and pull in other things she cares about, other ways she thinks.

At other points, action is being glossed over in a way that makes Waterman’s world feel less real, or misses opportunities to ground and pace it. In the first scene, “the ship’s captain shouted into a bullhorn from the bridge”—but what did they shout? The supplies of helium are “in the US desert”, but which desert, and where and when is Waterman from that she refers to “the US”, and what would a more specific term add to the story in terms of telling readers that information on the sly? Is there a particular sort of place “men wouldn’t think to look”, and if not, what does that kind of rigid thinking around gender say about Waterman, and how can that be developed? Is Waterman’s antisocial tendency and professional sabotage normal for her society, and what does it say about her, and how do others react? Who are these teenage crew, and what are they like, and what are the implications of an expensive airship crewed by teenagers? If it doesn’t matter who finds the helium, and this is a crisis, why’s Waterman sabotaging Bentson? In the long-term, it’s awfully self-destructive—and ends up potentially marooning them all.

On the other hand, where details are deployed isn’t always the most effective. The crew’s elevator system for crates doesn’t exactly speak to the core challenge of the story: the quest for helium, and the two scientists’ rivalry. The same problems start to appear with the itemizing of Waterman’s experimental days and where to drill. It’s worth asking: Is it the best use of page space? How do these details get back to the bigger question?

Thinking about how “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” can do more with details affects not just the worldbuilding and characters, but the pacing of the story. How could the information dump in the second scene be combined with Mrs. Bart’s glossed-over speech in the first to tighten the story up and make everything feel more organic?

In short: Especially when we’re building speculative settings, ones that move us in where and when, details matter.

What I’d really like to call attention to is that how those missing details and present details interact—what’s not there that you’d think might be, and what is there that doesn’t answer the core question—is part of this equation of what matters.

Everything we tell readers about our worlds is also an act of setting expectations: together, those details build the lens that tells readers, invisibly, about the viewpoints this story takes. If all the details are in logistics, but none in character and motivations, “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is saying—without having to say it explicitly—that logistics are important, but motivations aren’t. When it says the problem is this world’s energy crisis, and solving it, but all the details go to Waterman proving herself better than Bentson, the message is that the second thing is really what this story’s about, and the first was only window dressing. When it makes the major reveal that Alex is a woman in disguise, it says that your gender is more important than your actions—and reinforces that message with both Waterman and Bentson being more than a little selfish and awful.

What these instances all bring to a head for “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is making what it says it’s about actually what it shows us it’s about—or vice versa. In short, making the details it uses—when, how, and where—actually match what its proverbial mouth is saying so readers don’t expect one thing, and leave disappointed.

So my suggestion would be to go back to first principles and think about what “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is about: what in this story is important, and what readers should take from it. And then to deliberately arrange the details and attention it pays to those topics to make it plain—not through what the story says, but what it does—that those ideas are the centre of the story.

Working with details in this deliberate way will let this story do more: Deepen its setting into a fully-realized world, round out its characters into more than a gender difference, and clarify what their conflict’s about. The bones are there: with careful work and diligence, this has the potential to be much more.

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 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.

By Way Of Madness Chapter One by A.S. Walker

There’s an interesting story taking shape here. The body in the wagon, the hints of complicated politics, the sense that this world is probably more drimdark than noblebright, all come through in this opening chapter. There’s also a sense that we’re settling in for the length and depth of an epic fantasy. The pacing is leisurely, with frequent pauses for description, backstory, ruminations on this subject or that.

Not every novel needs to begin with a bang, literal or otherwise. Epic fantasy in particular takes its time, travels down sometimes lengthy byways, explores the world in detail. The reader knows they’re settling in for a long read. It’s an immersive experience.

With that in mind, I’m going to comment not so much on the pacing as on the ways in which the prose tends to slow it down. Some of what we see here may work later in the narrative, when the reader knows the characters better and is more invested in the minutiae of the story. At the beginning, the prose may want to be a little more economical, with fewer repeated facts and phrases.

We may for example want to move more quickly from road to city, and then from gatekeeper to magistrate. Shorter conversations with less repetition. More concise descriptions, and less backstory—retaining details that are directly relevant to the context, but saving the rest for later.

One thing that may help with this is to note how often we’re tagged with Ryndal’s viewpoint. We’re constantly reminded that he’s thinking, reflecting, noticing, seeing, feeling, reacting. Each reminder sets up a barrier between the reader and the protagonist, distancing the reader from Ryndal’s experience.

It might be worth removing the tags and seeing how the narrative works without them. We may need some of them, but the story may come through more clearly without the rest. We’ll be right there with Ryndal, rather than standing apart from the action and being told what he’s thinking and seeing and feeling.

We don’t want to gallop madly from scene to scene. That’s not how epic fantasy works. But the scenes can move ahead more smoothly, and the pacing can be less leisurely, without losing the essential character of the genre.

My other observation about this chapter is more logistical. Ryndal has a horse and a wagon. The connection between the two isn’t as clear as it might be. Ryndal appears to be riding the horse, which is possible when a horse is hitched to a vehicle, but I’m not getting a clear sense that the vehicle is hitched to the horse. In places it reads as if Ryndal is riding the horse and pulling the wagon himself.

Presumably that’s an issue of clarity in the prose. I’m supposing that in fact the wagon is hitched to the horse and Ryndal is riding the horse. If that’s the case, is he not sitting in the wagon and driving the horse because it’s too close to the stench of the corpse?

A few notes here. Horses and corpses don’t mix well—horses get spooky around dead things, which means it can be very hard to get them to go near a corpse, let alone be harnessed to a vehicle containing one. The horse must be very well trained to drive, or Ryndal may have found some way to deaden its sense of smell, an ointment or herb or similar. Or both, since even well-trained horses don’t always manage to overcome instinct.

If the horse is Ryndal’s riding horse and has been drafted to pull the wagon, it’s worth noting that horses have to be trained separately to ride or drive. Riding horses can freak completely out when hitched to a wagon. Add a corpse and you’ve got a pretty conclusive No Go. Or, more precisely, Go Very Very Fast Very Very Far Away From Rattly Reeky Chasey Thing. And Never Come Back.

Conversely, if the horse is trained to drive, it may not necessarily be trained to carry a rider. Pulling a cart is a different skill than carrying a live weight. The equipment is also different, with different attachments, locations, and purposes. Driving in particular requires a fairly complex harness, and the wagon is attached to this by means of a shaft or shafts. You can’t simply tie the wagon to the horse’s saddle or bridle.

Horses can be trained to both ride and drive, and often are, but it’s something to keep in mind. Contrary to what we see in movies, if a horse isn’t trained to do a particular thing, it’s not as simple as hitching it up to the cart or jumping on its back. There’s a process, and the horse has definite opinions as to how it will go.

As long as we’re on horses, don’t forget: A horse is not a motor vehicle. It’s a live animal. It needs frequent stops, considerable and regular amounts of feed and water, and rest, which in a city will mean a stable of some kind. It can’t be left standing for hours or days without consequences to its fitness or soundness. It also has a mind of its own, and may wander off if left unattended. And, as I noted above, if it takes sufficient exception to its surroundings, it will leave at speed. Often going through and possibly obliterating anything in its way, including people, other animals, walls, doors, fences, market stalls…

Best of luck with the novel, and happy writing!

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

 

SSlam by Noel Gonzales

One of the things I like most about about writing workshops is the opportunity to see a variety of work at all stages from first draft to just about ready for prime time. I particularly love first drafts, because they provide so much insight into the individual writer’s process. There is no wrong way to write a first draft. However the words get onto the page, whatever shape they take, that’s the right way for that particular writer.

This submission has a great energy. I like the way it starts right off with the big event, as seen through the narrow focus of a first-person protagonist’s day job. The characters are quickly and clearly sketched; I get a sense of who they all are, how they talk, how they react to the unthinkable.

The protagonist comes through even at this early stage. I don’t know their name yet, or their gender, or their history, but I’m invested enough to stay with them. They’re more than just a pair of eyes. They’re an active part of the narrative, and their actions and reactions help it move along.

I would, in further revisions, like to see the synopsized portions written out. I do that in first draft, too—quick sketch to get to the next part that’s demanding to be written. The final section of the chapter needs to be a fully realized scene, like what comes before. Let us experience it directly, as it happens, in real time.

I have one question about the actual content: Would meteorologists have to guess about radiation? Isn’t there some way to measure it, that authorities would have access to?

Way back in the Sixties, my dad was part of the Civil Defense force. He had a geiger counter and would go out regularly to check radiation levels around the area. The technology would have been considerably updated, but surely there’s something like it in use around the country. I can recall news reports about aftereffects of the Fukushima disaster, for example, with data from various locations, though I don’t recall which agencies were doing the recording.

Overall, this is a good start. I’m sure the prose will sort itself out in line edits, smoothing awkward or repetitive phrasing and reducing the number of viewpoint tags (I noticed, I saw, I looked, I thought, I felt). It’s not anything I’d worry about at this stage. The plot and characters are taking shape nicely; I’ll be interested to see where they go from here.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Night Eyes/A Cozy Fire by Tony Valiulis

This is quite an interesting experiment:  two versions of the same story with some different details and with the order of the material changed.

Both stories follow a first-person narrator as he warms himself beside a fire on a stormy night and thinks about the events of the day.  He throws the head of the wife he killed on the fire, and it shoots fire at him, presumably killing him.

For me, the second version, “A Cozy Fire,” gets my interest more quickly and creates more curiosity and anticipation.

One key moment in both versions is the narrator having a drink:  “I pour myself a drink, Balvenie 40-year-old single malt. A costly extravagance (about $8,000 a bottle), the scotch has sat on the shelf for years waiting for the right moment. I sip the whisky, savoring the aroma of ripe fruit, figs, and almond. Its soothing warmth calms me.”  This passage tells us that, for the narrator, this is the “right moment” for this special treat.  Something big has been accomplished.  The narrator requires a bit of calming, but what comes through the most for me is that this is the pinnacle moment the narrator has been striving for.  This creates an obvious question in readers’ minds:  what did the narrator accomplish?  That makes me want to keep reading to find the answer.

In the first version of the story, “Night Eyes,” this moment comes in paragraph 4 out of 10 total.  In the second version of the story, this moment comes in paragraph 1.  That means I’m not really drawn into story 1 until I reach the 40% mark, while in story 2 I’m drawn in at the start.

In story 1, once he has the drink, he smells rancid meat (revealing someone has been killed) and thinks of his wife, who is not present.  It’s pretty clear almost immediately that he has killed her, so once I’m drawn in and form the question about what he accomplished, I get my answer right away.  That doesn’t allow suspense to build.

In story 2, he has the drink at the start, then spends a couple paragraphs thinking about the nasty events of the day–which leaves me uncertain what those events were.  A line of what might be thought or remembered dialogue is provided–” Not yet, my love. Rest with me a bit longer”–which I’m not quite certain how to interpret.  Then we get a paragraph of description of the storm, and then another thought that makes it clear to me that he killed his wife.  So there are 5 paragraphs (out of 17 total in this version) between the time I form the question of what he accomplished and the time I figure out the answer.  That allows curiosity and suspense to grow.

After that, in story 1, suspense declines.  The narrator thinks more about his wife, hinting at why he killed her, but as a reader, I really don’t care, since this piece is short and I haven’t had a chance to get to know the narrator or his wife.  And then the head gets thrown on the fire.

In story 2, the thoughts, which are explained as the narrator’s imagining of his dead wife’s voice, continue, arguing with the narrator.  This builds some conflict, which helps to sustain my interest, though nothing seems to be at stake, so there’s not much suspense.  As they argue, we discover why the narrator killed his wife and get a hint that she’s not entirely dead, foreshadowing her shooting fire at him at the end.

In both versions, we’re not aware of any reason why her disembodied head should be able to shoot fire at him, so that seems to come out of the blue.  While it’s surprising, a climax generally works best when it feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.  That means the climax feels right, that it feels like the only thing that could have happened, though we didn’t see it coming.  I don’t feel that in either version.  We get a little hint in story 2, which is better, but it comes only 4 paragraphs before the end, so it feels more like a last-minute explanation than foreshadowing.  Foreshadowing is best done well before the event that’s being foreshadowed occurs.  It often works well near the beginning of a story.  That allows readers to register the information without figuring out what’s going to happen because they’re still getting oriented in the story.

Here are some additional thoughts about how story 2 might be strengthened.

Using the word “kindling” to refer to his wife’s body parts makes me feel like the story is cheating me.  Since this is a story that invites readers to figure out what’s going on, readers will feel more satisfaction if they feel the game is being played fairly.  Instead of giving us an incorrect piece of information by saying “a bag of kindling,” the narrator might just not give us the information and say, “my bag.”  That will raise the question, “What’s in the bag?” and make readers more engaged.

I think the narrator’s attitude toward killing his wife could be clarified/strengthened.  I really don’t know how he feels about his wife, so I don’t know how to feel about him, her, or what happens.  The expensive drink makes me feel like he’s rewarding himself, and he’s savoring it, but then he needs to be calmed.  I’m not sure if he wants to be calmed after excitement or he wants to be calmed after tragedy. Then he says the events were nasty but contained pleasures.  The imagined voice of his wife makes me think he feels guilty, but I don’t feel guilt from him.  He smiles at the smell of rancid meat, which I assume is her head and possibly other parts.  He says he’ll miss her terribly, but I don’t feel that either.  So there are a lot of mixed signals.  I generally conclude that he’s kind of a standard bad guy who killed his wife and should pay the price for that.  But that’s not terribly interesting.  Instead of telling us he has two contradictory feelings, it could be stronger to show him having one feeling and then imply there is another feeling, unstated, beneath that.

Before I go into that, let’s consider the emotion the story is trying to generate at the end.  I think the story wants to show the narrator getting his comeuppance and satisfy the readers’ sense of justice (with a bit of horror thrown in).  If that’s the case, then we need to feel the narrator is deserving of this fate.  He’s a murderer, so I guess he may deserve death, but I don’t really feel what a horrible person he is.  Yes, chopping his wife up is horrible, but that’s not in the story.  If the story is trying to show me a horrible guy deserving of being burned to death, then I think his attitude toward his wife and the situation that led to her murder might be adjusted to make us feel he’s a really awful person.  Perhaps, instead of stumbling upon his work, they were working together, and she figured out the key, stealing the glory of discovery from him.  In that case, returning to the issue of his feelings about her, perhaps he’s thinking that she was a wonderful “assistant,” and her enthusiasm was admirable, but her ideas would have taken his work in the wrong direction.  He’s better able to carry the work forward.  We could then sense, in the subtext, that he was threatened by her superiority and that’s what led him to kill her.  Creating subtext can give us a sense that the narrator has layers to his character rather than that he’s saying contradictory things.

The idea that she was involved in his work might also provide a possible reason why her head is able to shoot fire at him.

Finally, I’d suggest that the narrator not explain that the words he’s hearing are his imagination of his wife’s voice.  He might wonder if he’s imagining it, or think he must be imagining it, but if you leave a bit of uncertainty, that again will engage us by raising the question, “Is he imagining it or is it something else?”

Questions, when they’re clear and not overwhelming, can create reader engagement and suspense.

I enjoyed the challenge to compare the two versions.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

Publication News

Jack Windeyer wants everyone to know he made his first sale!

“Writing to let you know about my first sale. “Therapy is Now in Beta” is included in The Colored Lens’ Autumn 2022 issue. The story received fantastic feedback across two drafts from this workshop. Thanks especially to Rodrigo Culagovski who reviewed both drafts!”

Huge congratulations, Jack! First sales are a total rush. Enjoy it.

 

Publication News

Rodrigo Culagovski  wrote to tell us: “Just to report that I sold “Max Loves the Internet”, which was reviewed on the workshop by Jack Windeyer, C J Peterson, Darrell Newton, Shannon Walch, F Teesak, Dean Altman, and Lyri Ahnam last March and April.

As always, I’m indebted to the workshop and everybody on it for kick starting my writing career at the tender age of 51.”
Yay, Rodrigo!

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The Dreamer-Chapter 7: My Partner In Investigation by Kristen Welsh

This submission has a promising premise. I particularly appreciate the thorough summary of previous chapters. It gives me a good sense of what’s gone before, and makes the events of the chapter both clear and easy to follow.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of craft in the chapter. The first is what I call emotional temperature. Characters’ feelings are crucial to the development of the story as well as the characters themselves.

The intensity of those feelings is equally important. If a reaction is too strong for the context, the reader can feel as if the writer is trying too hard. Conversely, if the reaction isn’t strong enough, it may seem to the reader as if they’re not getting as much out of the story as they’d like to. Are they missing something? Is this scene not really important after all?

When Neil arrives in Kat’s apartment and meets Luna, his reactions tend toward the former. His eyes bulge, they water, he’s stunned, he’s weak, he’s floored. But then he shifts in the opposite direction. He chuckles, he laughs, he invites Kat and Luna to IHOP. He seems to jump from one to the other.

In revision, I would suggest smoothing the emotional arc somewhat. Tone down the strong reactions. Show a more gradual shift from shock and astonishment to casual social interaction. Give us a clearer sense of how his emotions change, and why. Does he realize he’s reacting strongly and make an effort to tone it down? If so, is the effort perceptible to Kat? If not, how does he get from OMG! to Hey, kid, let’s have pancakes?

The second thing I’d like to point to is the nature and purpose of dialogue. In real life, most of the things people say to each other are basically filler. Set phrases that everyone utters, that grease the social wheels and set up common expectations. That’s how people can develop the tic of finishing other people’s sentences for them. Most sentences are going to contain the same words in the same order.

In fiction, however, dialogue serves a different purpose. It conveys information that the reader needs to know—new information, or new light on old information. It develops character and establishes relationships between characters. It moves the plot forward.

Real-world conversation, for the most part, doesn’t do any of these things. All the stock phrases, the small talk, the back and forth of Hello-How Are You-I’m Fine-How Are You, get in the way of the story. Take them out and the story doesn’t lose anything.

Rather, it gains clarity. It lets the reader see the important things, the details they need in order to follow the movement of the story. It’s the Good-Parts Version, the part that has all the nice chewy spicy bits.

The rest of it can still be there—but not on the page. It’s implied. You know they’ll say hello, invite the guest in, make introductions. What matters to the story are the details that we either don’t know yet, or don’t have all we need in order to move on to the rest of the story.

Most of the dialogue in this chapter is realistic in that it reflects how people in the real world talk. But the story needs to focus on the good parts: the parts that reveal new information and provide new details about who these people are, what they are or will be to each other, what they want and what they need and why. If a character doesn’t know something but the reader does, repeating the information would, again, be realistic, but it stalls the story. Even if they need to know it, the reader doesn’t. The story can skip over the explanation and focus on the next piece of new information.

It’s a balancing act. Too much filler or too many extraneous details and the story gets lost. Not enough information, or not enough new information, and the reader gets confused. The writer’s art and craft (and challenge) is to walk the line between the two.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The New Shah (Prologue) by Griffin Ayaz

I love the combination of ancient history and science fiction. It is not easy to do, and it’s even harder to do well. The writer needs to have a solid grasp of both the historical background and the tropes and traditions of science fiction.

This submission, so far, works for me on both levels. It’s well written, though in the line-edit stage I might suggest that the synonyms be pared down considerably in favor of the characters’ names, their pronouns where possible to avoid confusion, and just one or two alternative phrases. It’s confusing and rather distracting to try to keep track of multiple epithets for each character.

As brief as the prologue is, it does a good job of establishing the relationship between the princes. We quickly come to sympathize with Vidarna and despise Pashata, and we get a quick but compelling glimpse of the Shah as well. Through the references to Vidarna’s later self and the examples of friction with his father, we can see a hint of conflict that may move the plot of the novel proper. Is Vidarna now truly free? Will people finally see which of the princes was the true villain? Or will Vidarna be accused of orchestrating his brother’s murder, and have to suffer even worse consequences than he did when Pashata was alive?

I like it when I can ask questions like this. It means the story is set up well enough to capture my imagination. It makes me want to find out what will happen next.

The overall atmosphere of the prologue feels more historical than science-fictional to me. Certain details point to the novel’s genre: the packbeasts in their lack of specificity (rather than mules or camels or another terrestrial species), and the glow-lily, and of course the Immortal. I wonder if there might be one or two more hints of the alien in among the familiar, plants or animals, foods or fragrances, that aren’t the ones we know. Maybe even a reference to a weapon that signals far future albeit low tech, or a form of technology that’s distinctly not ancient Persian.

I also wonder if there might be more sense of agency in what the Immortal does. Can Vadarna predict where it will emerge, or can he do something to provoke it (voluntarily or otherwise) that then (voluntarily or otherwise) causes Pashata to fall into its maw? I like ambiguity, but I think there might be just a little more here to clarify the truth about what’s happened.

The creature makes me think of Dune with its equally destructive, similarly divine native life, which the Fremen can manipulate for their own purposes. If the parallel is intentional, it might be useful to make the Immortal similarly controllable as well.

Overall, as I said, this prologue works for me. I would definitely read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The Dark Of Night by Tyler Burns

Atmosphere is an important component of horror, giving a story an emotional tone that colors everything that happens.  This story, through its setting, situation, and descriptions, succeeds in conveying an atmosphere of barrenness, isolation, darkness, and doom.  The atmosphere contributes to the emotion and suspense of the story, since it makes me feel as if the characters don’t have a chance, and I want to keep reading to find out what happens to them.  The story also employs a classic motif in which those who eat the flesh of someone or something are destined to die.   That provides a causal chain to the plot, a chain of cause and effect, so it doesn’t seem as if the characters are being attacked randomly or because the author wants it to happen.

Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.

Blaze, the first-person narrator, explains to Sawyer that he encountered the beast, shot off its tail, and then served it for dinner.  But this information comes fairly late in the story, too late to have much effect, though it has been tormenting Blaze throughout.  Coming late in the story, it seems more like an excuse for the beast’s attack rather than a cause for the attack.  And we feel fairly distant from Blaze because he’s very concerned with what he did, and we don’t know what that was for a long time.  It would be better earlier in the piece.

Before I go into that more, I’d like to discuss another element.  Blaze has strong, unspoken affection for Sawyer, and Sawyer feels the same.  In the middle part of the story, Sawyer shares his feelings with Blaze and they consummate their relationship.  There’s not much tension in this portion of the story.  Sawyer says, feels, and does exactly what Blaze has been hoping for.  It could add tension to the story if Sawyer was reluctant.  Perhaps Sawyer had been acting more friendly toward Blaze as Blaze has taken on the cooking duties and worked to create some delicious, hearty meals (as it has been said, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).  Since they ran out of meat a few days before, Sawyer might have been withdrawing and talking about moving to the city alone.  So when Blaze shoots the tail off the beast, he decides to serve it for dinner in the hope of winning Sawyer over.  This would add some suspense to their relationship and put more at stake when Blaze confesses what he’s done.

In this case, perhaps the story begins with burying Wyatt’s body, and then Blaze and Sawyer return to the cabin, and Blaze serves the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner (of the beast’s tail), and Sawyer says how good it is, and there probably won’t be such good food in the city, and Blaze, knowing this is his last chance and forcing himself to speak, says he could go with Sawyer and cook for him and take care of his needs.  So this might be portrayed a little more as Blaze seducing Sawyer.  This would make Blaze a more active protagonist, struggling to achieve his goal, rather than having Sawyer’s love handed to him with no effort.  This would also give Blaze a stronger motivation for cooking and serving the tail, this key action that leads to their deaths.

Another element that could be strengthened is the first-person voice.  Voice is an important and often overlooked element of story, and it’s extremely prominent in first person.  First person subjective feels like the narrator talking to us, telling us his story.  Because of that, the voice needs to sound like this particular character’s authentic speech.  This can help reveal the character and the world.  In this story, the voice feels inconsistent, shifting fairly often.  At times, Blaze sounds like a cowboy in the old West.  At other times, he sounds like a British man from several centuries ago.  At other times, the voice sounds somewhat Lovecraftian.  Voice can be a slippery thing.  Finding good examples of the voice you’re trying for can help.  For example, if you’re going for an old West feeling, you could find a collection of letters written by people living in the old West, type some of those into your computer five times to get the word choices and phrasings into your mind.  Then you can try to take some of the sentences and change the content to connect to your story while retaining the sentence structures.  Then eventually you can try to write a paragraph from your story in this voice.  You might also find the book Voice by James Scott Bell useful.

There are also some unclear, awkward, or overwritten sentences that take me out of the story.  A study of strong prose could help.  A good way to do this is to find a story by someone else that you think is written really well, written in a way that you would like to write.  Pick a good paragraph and type it into your computer five times.  Then try to type it in without looking at the original.  Compare the two and see what you changed or left out.  Then try again.  Do the same thing with stories by other writers, so you’re feeding yourself really strong prose in a variety of styles.  I would also recommend the book Description by Monica Wood.

Thanks for sharing your campfire story.  I hope these comments are helpful.

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