Publication News

Ethan Sabatella wrote to tell us: “I wanted to reach out to notify you that one of my stories I submitted to the OWW for workshopping, entitled “Fort of the Ravens,” has been sold to Whetstone magazine and appeared in their 3rd issue. It was released on June 11th, 2021. I couldn’t have made this publication without the assistance of fellow writers and reviewers.”

You can read Ethan’s story here.

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Lost Leaves by Charlotte Haley

This is a powerful and evocative piece. I feel it deeply. My undergraduate senior thesis had a similar theme, and often felt as if it were shaking the world apart. It had a tendency to bleed green ink.

Because the story is so short and so intense, writing tight is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity. This draft has made a strong start. I have a few suggestions to help with revision.

First, a shift from passive to active formulations. Gerunds—words that in end in –ing—have a way of slackening the tension in a sentence. Stirring milk, rounding from the kitchen, returning to the computer, chalking it up, letting out a long sigh—the story is in love with gerunds. Count them all, and think about how to make their individual clauses and sentences stronger, more active. I might almost set a challenge to eliminate them, then see if the story needs them.

Shortening sentences will help, too. Sharpening the focus of each phrase. When clauses connect with and, see if they work better as separate sentences, especially if the clauses refer to different actions or concepts:

The fresh coffee burned her tongue in punishment and she looked around for her energy drink

Grey light streamed into the yellow cave and, slipping on her hood to protect from falling debris, she tried to read the essay’s introduction

—the latter even includes a gerund, which might be replaced with an active construction.

Think about clarity, and the meanings of words. Reticent, traipsing—do they mean what they want to mean here? Are feet compounding earth or pounding it? What does “compounding” mean? Is “wettened” a word? What does “mottled” mean in the context of rain? Is it God’s remonstration or Their remonstrance? I’m not sure what “the slits of his gaze” are—it almost seems as if the slits are his nostrils, but then again, they have to be his eyes, even though they’re mucous-membrane-colored. On the one hand, the small shock of surprise at an unusual word or phrase can be effective in a mood piece, but the reader should be clear on what the author is trying to say.

Make sure details are relevant to their context. Do we need to know that the sweatshirt is a gift? Is it significant that the window is to her left, as we’re told more than once? While it is important to know that Joanie is drowning in a sense of futility, that she expects to fail, do we need to be told that there’s no way she can fix the door, when she proceeds to do so as best she can? Perhaps a moment of near-collapse, a brief flash of can’t, then she pulls herself together and does what she can. Which, in its way, is a metaphor for everything she’s doing or trying to do in the story.

Watch out for slack phrasing. For example:

Joanie wore the 6-day-extension like a participation ribbon torn from the hands of the examiners. The focus loosens after ribbon. The sentence seems to wander into another context.

She was pushing the ideas into holes that were too small, the wrongness of it all beginning to creep up her hands and arms in stiffness. The last two words don’t fit the rest. Are they creeping or stiffening? Which is the closest to the intended meaning?

And finally, watch for repetition, for word and phrase echoes: she went, then she went again; the house falls down in the same way over and over, with much the same phrasing. Pare down the repetitive bits, focus on what’s most important. Keep the goal in mind, the collapse of the house while she clings grimly to her essay, and in the end her surrender to the god of entropy.

One element that I quite like, which might be worth a little more attention, is the way in which her body parts, and adjacent objects, act on their own. Her hands on the keys, her chair not moving. Her laptop undoing her revisions. It feels in these bits as if she’s lost volition; she’s no longer in charge of her own body, let alone her life or her house. A bit sharper focus on that would make the theme stronger and the ending even more effective.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

To Assume A Pleasing Shape, Part 1, by Andrea Horlick

“To Assume a Pleasing Shape” caught my eye this month with its deft handling of emotional textures, accomplished prose, and organic-feeling world—and a mystery that keeps building as what looks like a poser artist boy turns ominous. But what works to generate tension for the adult end of the narrative slowly starts to swamp the plot itself. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to approach our work when what’s working on one level of craft in a story is hampering another.

At base, “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” is just a solid, engrossing read—absorbing enough that, even though it runs over 15,000 words, there are very few places that drag. It’s full of great little observational details: Belial’s smell as “moss and burnt things” and Michaela’s mascara in the dim light are specific, unique-feeling ones. Jules’s pervasive lust and grief infiltrate everything; the persistent intrusions of her desire and hesitancy are excellently paced. And Jules’s dry and slightly insecure commentary on Michaela’s art scene friends feels less mean-spirited than true to a mid-thirties struggling writer who’s maybe just too old for scene dynamics.

There’s also a lot of craft going into the sex scenes. Sex can be very challenging to write from a craft perspective—not just an accessibility one—as we walk the line between being too obscure, pandering to what we think readers expect, and embedding it into the overall plot and characterization in a way that feels integrated. “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” does a very strong job of balancing those priorities in some emotionally complex and in one case, violating sexual encounters in a way that feels like genuine arousal on Jules’s part but doesn’t bog the story’s motion down.

But it’s the texture of the sex scenes that, as it builds the sexual side of the narrative tension, deeply muddies the waters on what’s actually happening between Jules, Michaela, and Belial—and how the narrative assumes readers will feel about it.

Jules treats Michaela as an addiction, a nearly-resented vice—every encounter with her is “tinged with a thin wash of regret”; every early thing we see about Michaela makes Mim and Ann-Elizabeth’s concerns feel very valid. Jules has no ability to draw boundaries with Michaela, it makes her miserable, and that seems to be rooted absolutely in sex. There are repeated consent violations that seem to sexually satisfy but emotionally and almost spiritually hurt her.

It goes even farther with Belial: she’s frozen, paralyzed by sexual desire and fear, and he actively renames her to Mine. This is scary territory, but Jules’s reaction to it—weird wonder and a fear that’s deeply sexualized—doesn’t necessarily set off the alarms it should be and clearly point to a supernatural hold or possession, and that’s because of how she’s previously interacted with Michaela. Readers have seen this as in-character for her already; the red flag isn’t red enough, or the last one was a little too red for comparison.

That’s muddied farther by Jules herself. She’s a deeply complicated character: hungry, crushed under her own people-pleasing habits, and surprisingly insecure. As a protagonist in isolation from the context of the story, this works; she’s remarkably believable in her messiness. But especially with Belial’s shapeshifting—or Jules’s ability to see him in other bodies—added into the mix, her very subjective reading on events makes it tricky to tease out where the objectivity underlying “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” should be looked for.

There are hints that start to spread through in the second instalment: Belial knows who Jules is. But as Jules doesn’t seem to recognize what he’s talking about in any way, it’s hard for readers to use those hints; they become a dead end, not a plot thread building, and then they’re obliterated by the spiritual or hallucinated sexual assault that follows and blocked by Jules’s refusal to disclose. The counter-hints—Jules has a biological family, and is implied to be not supernatural herself—also undermine some of the potential directions. Readers get a lot of what she isn’t, but not what she is—so when it turns out to be the key to the ending, I’m left somewhat adrift.

Jules’s transformation into a winged creature (Belial with his wings, possessing her?) pays off the buildup on a certain—and very specific—level: it’s the emotional arc of an orgasm. And for what “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” is doing with sexual content, how it handles need and sublimation and self-denial, that does actually work. It’s the structure of a sexual fantasy, well-executed. But I’m concerned that most of the narrative threads in the piece—the torment of her relationship as Michaela’s half-unwilling muse, the reason Jules experiences attraction as voice-stealing and stifling, and the overlay of what happens narratively during that ending—don’t entirely resolve with it. This is erotic fiction; the erotic half resolves. The fiction part doesn’t yet, and that’s the part that I would suggest needs next draft’s focus.

Some of the core issue might be, I’d suggest, that Belial knows what Jules is—but I, as a reader, don’t. Belial lies; I as a reader don’t have enough external context to tell if his implication she’s more than human, or different, is a lie, and therefore what happened here. Jules’s early jealousy and conviction Michaela and Belial are gaslighting her plants the idea of instability, and can make the ending read as if it’s a Twilight Zone-esque “and then the protagonist loses her mind” (or more literally, “and then the devil”). When read on the plot level specifically, I find myself asking which of the implications here are the important ones, and which I should discard as part of the multiple unreliable perspectives in this piece.

I think it’s worth looking for a way the ending can retain that sexual structure—but also build in plot-level satisfaction, and I think an early key to that might be choosing to be more deliberate about where ambiguity’s placed in “To Assume a Pleasing Shape”. This piece seems to get its narrative energy from ambiguity—the action of almost every arc of conflict is that Jules is not sure what’s going on, and it could be terrible but it could be great. It’s a powerful tool, and I don’t want to suggest changing what’s working. But seeding ambiguity everywhere adds up to an insurmountable barrier when it comes time to resolve an ending—and it’s the everywhere that might be the key here. It might be a worthwhile strategy to not change the approach, but pare it back: consider if the sheer number of sources for ambiguity here are too much of one approach.

If it’s possible to be more strategic about what in Jules’s experience is ambiguous, where to site those conflicts (her relationship with Michaela or her art, her own background or who Belial is), I think it might be possible to both address the author’s-notes stresses about length and clear enough uncertainty to let the actual clues become visible again—and give readers a chance to catch what the story’s throwing without compromising its own subtlety.

I’d also suggest potentially trying to map this piece in terms of conflicts and resolutions. Her attraction to Belial resolves; her question as to Michaela’s loyalty resolves. But there are plot and thematic elements here that don’t—the big one I’d identify is Jules’s self-destructive relationship with lust and desire—and if there are ways to find resolutions for them along the road, that might create a sense of moving satisfaction that also limits the amount of work the ending’s asked to do.

Ultimately this is a question of balance: making this work as dark erotic fantasy and making it work as an underlying narrative, narrative beats breathing in and out, tension and release. It might take a bit of tinkering to get the balance right, but the fundamentals here are more than sound, and I think it’s well on its way to working.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Cageborn by Jamie Boyd

I love ravens. I follow the RavenMaster of London on Twitter. It was a pleasure to find a submission that takes the raven’s point of view and turns it into a lovely and affecting story.

The title strikes to the core of who Corax is, both psychologically and socially. I think it might work even better if the fact of his being born in a cage were woven more clearly through the story. Maybe a bit more from his son about his refusal to leave his sanctuary, and a bit more about the ways in which the Cageborn are regarded by the rest of the world.

I have a few questions about the worldbuilding. The detail about Corax’s beak tearing the pages of the book is a nice touch, but would it make more sense for him to use his feet and claws? Are his eyes suited to reading on a flat page? Does he need some sort of accommodation—lenses, a mirror, something to make raven eyesight work in a human context? Would his eyes have been altered as well as his brain?

Thinking about that detail made me wonder about the setup of Dr. Enota’s experiment. The disappearance of humans would probably also mean the disappearance of electronic and digital devices, not to mention the internet. Would the ravens have initially been taught to read on screen? Is Corax’s difficulty is not so much with reading as with reading hardcopy? Were his mate’s alterations more extensive or effective, so that it was easier for her to make the transition?

Unmodified ravens are very vocal. They’re good mimics and can be taught human speech. Would these enhanced ravens have learned to speak a human language? Would Corax have taught his son? Zephyr may not be enhanced, but normal raven intelligence is pretty far up there. Would that be another reason for him to be rejected by the gang?

Does Dr. Enota need to be male, or even binary? Would it matter to a raven?

Since Corax despite his modifications is still very much a raven, I appreciate that he’s at ease with living with the dead Doctor. Would he have cleaned the bones, or would he have left the body to decompose naturally out of respect for human sensibilities?

(In a similar context, my impression is that vultures aren’t so much garbage eaters as eaters of the dead. I’m not sure they would see the dump as a longterm source of groceries. Rather, they might be feeding on corpses of actual garbage eaters. Vultures are Nature’s undertakers, after all.)

The story does a pretty good job of inhabiting the raven’s skin, but it slips in a few places. The references to Corax’s face, to his blush of embarrassment, like the reference to Zephyr’s expression, would work if they were human, or if they had faces, like mammals. Ravens don’t have what we might consider a face. It’s mostly beak. Corax might feel a rush of heat over his body, but not necessarily around his beak.

Ravens are very expressive, but they do it through body language and movement, as well as through vocalization. Corax’s feather-pulling is a great detail, and a good illustration of avian stress. How might he show embarrassment? Ducking his head? Hiding it under a wing? Making himself small? Maybe instead of his face heating, he catches himself flattening down or turning his head away. Likewise he’ll read Zephyr’s emotions in how he stands and moves, whether he ruffles his feathers or flattens them out, what he does with his wings or tail, how he blinks or clacks his beak, and so on.

I don’t think any of these revisions need to add a lot of word count. Mostly it’s a matter of thinking through the concept of the story, clarifying its main themes, and sorting out a bit more of the worldbuilding. Best of luck in revision, and thank you for the opportunity to be a raven for an afternoon.

–Judith Tarr

On The Shelves

The Ship Of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde (Amulet Books June, 2021) 

No matter how much trouble Sam gets in, he knows that he can always rely on his magic word, “sorry,” to get him out of a pinch. Teasing his little sister too much? Sorry! Hurt someone’s feelings in class? Sorry! Forgot to do his chores? So sorry! But when goblins come and steal his “sorry,” he can’t apologize for anything anymore. To get his “sorry” back and stop the goblins from stealing anyone else’s words, Sam will have to enter the goblins’ world and try and find the depository of stolen words.
There, he meets Tolver, a young goblin who’s always dreamed of adventure. Tolver longs to use the goblin technology—which can turn words into fuel to power ships—to set off and explore, but his grandma warns him that the goblin prospectors will only bring trouble.
Together, Tolver and Sam will have to outsmart the cruel prospectors and save the day before Sam’s parents ground him forever!

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

To Claim The Amethyst Throne: Prologue & Chapter 1 (Part 1) by Laura Ferriesa

This submission drew me with its gorgeous title, and the prologue and chapter promise a lush, intricate, elaborate fantasy full of court intrigue and, possibly, high magic—though we don’t see that here (or yet?). The prose is reaching toward the high style, more so in the prologue than in the opening chapter. It’s full of rich description and rhetorical effects.

I think the prologue needs a pass or two more of revision to prune the repetitive phrasing and fine-tune the emotional arc. The force of grief and the shock of betrayal come through clearly, but they could be more subtle and the evolution of the Emperor’s feelings more gradual, especially in the confrontation with Uzuri. It’s a bit over the top in this draft, a bit more overstated than it might most effectively be.

The same applies to Soria’s “crowing” over Nadira’s death. Her scorn rings true, as does her exulting, but again, it could be a little less in-Alarcon’s-face. A bit of polish, some careful toning down, will (in the lovely paradox of Less-Is-More) make the scene stronger.

Chapter 1 has a somewhat different voice and tone, and for me, through Shaylee’s eyes, the story comes alive. The pacing is leisurely, but it doesn’t drag. We learn things we need to know in order to understand who Shaylee is and what her world is like.

There is a some repetitiveness as the chapter progresses, a tendency to go over and over the same information, which can be pruned and tightened in revision. Just make a note of how often the same words appear and the same concepts repeat themselves: Shaylee’s background and family history, Aunt Lisel’s history, Shaylee’s desire to join the flock of her siblings, the awful saffron gown. Clearly she obsesses over these things, and it’s important we know that, but she might pare down her repetitions by just a bit.

I appreciate (and salute) the self-awareness of the narration and its viewpoint. Shaylee knows she spends a great of time in her head, and is well aware that she has a habit of running over and over the same ideas. For the most part it works; just once in a while the prose might be tighter and less inclined to spin in place.

It’s a pleasure to read a ms. that knows the rules (which are really just guidelines) and bends them to good effect. Tulia’s rattling on could become tedious, but it’s nicely balanced and the things she says are important for the reader to know. She’s a good example of her character type, just far enough over the top to be memorable, but not so much that she strains credulity. That’s the balance of detail and the narrative control that prologue needs—and, I’m sure, will achieve with revision.

As for the question in the Author’s Note, yes, I would read on. I want to know what happens to Shaylee, what’s been going on in court since Nadira’s death, and who claims the Amethyst Throne. It’s a good start. I’d like to see more.

–Judith Tarr

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Thulean Tomb 8.8.95 by Ethan Sabatella

I’ve enjoyed found-footage movies, so I was excited to read the piece and see how this would work as a transcript.   The piece conveys complex action pretty clearly, and I get a pretty good sense of the characters Leth, Kaneq, and Holger.  The most exciting part of the story, for me, occurs when the effigy, “resembling a towering shark with multiple mouths,” is introduced.  That gives me a strong feeling of mystery and horror, and creates a Lovecraftian atmosphere.  The mystery and horror grow when we learn of the “Bone-Caster . . . He Whose Blood is Smoke” and when the dark forces start to manifest.   The protesting Inuits and the possessed Kaneq provide additional threats that build suspense.  All of that works well.

I think there are several elements in the story that could be strengthened, though.

Leth is a very passive protagonist.  He does little in the story except film and flee.  That makes me not care as much about him as I might, and it makes me emotionally withdraw from the story, since it seems clear to me that Leth will only survive this story if the author makes that happen; Leth, on his own, will not cause his survival.  While of course the author makes everything in the story happen, readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference from the author.  Readers need to feel that the characters’ actions have consequences.  When Holger climbs up toward the Inuits, it’s clear to me that they aren’t going to let him up.  Yet Leth doesn’t figure that out until it’s too late, and then doesn’t do anything but call to Holger.  Since the process of Holger climbing would be slow, there’s a great opportunity to build suspense and have Leth figure out something to do in the attempt to protect Holger.  Doing some research on this type of expedition and what equipment they would have would provide some possible weapons/tools Leth could use, both here and elsewhere in the story.  Right now, they seem to have no equipment beyond the camera.  For example, perhaps they have a flare gun that Leth could threaten to fire at the Inuits, and ultimately could fire.  The Inuits could be unharmed, but at least Leth would have tried.  (And the Inuits could become angrier, which would increase the threat.)  Or one of the Inuits could fall, hitting Holger and sending him to the bottom.

On a related point, the story would be stronger if Holger didn’t die but was horribly wounded, so Leth and the others couldn’t just forget about him and move ahead with the plot but would want to struggle to get out of the cave as quickly as possible so they could help Holger.  As it is, when they return to the cave, it’s unclear whether their goal is to continue exploration or to escape.  And there doesn’t seem to be much urgency for a while.

The Inuits vanish from the story at this point, which wastes an opportunity to bring them back later.  I was waiting for them to come back at the worst possible moment, which is when they should come back.  One possibility would be to have them kill Leth after he escapes the cave at the end.

Returning to the issue of Leth’s passivity, I think he needs to do more to attempt to combat Kaneq’s possession.  He doesn’t notice her blue eyes the first time, which seems odd.  When it’s clear to me that she’s possessed, Leth is still asking her what’s wrong, which is not convincing.  I think he’d be shaking her and yelling at her to snap out of it and reminding her of what really matters to her.  This could provoke Kaneq to hit him with the scrimshaw; right now, she seems to have no good reason for knocking him out.  He’s not doing anything that matters anyway.  If he was on the verge of getting through to her, if there was a moment where she broke through the possession and told him to run, it would make more sense that the dark powers would reassert their control over her and force her to silence Leth.

Later, after she knocks him out, she orders him to take the camera and he does, and he films as horrible things happen and a member of his team is burned to death.  Instead, he should be acting.  Let him drop the camera, and let the camera capture only glimpses of what happens.  Then Leth could try to save Oskar and the interns.  When the interns fight him, he could guess/realize that the Kaneq is controlling them with the scrimshaw.  He could rip it out of her hand.  In the current version, Leth throws the scrimshaw on the fire, but if it has any effect, that’s unclear to me.  It certainly doesn’t destroy the dark powers.  I don’t know why Kaneq would throw herself on the fire to be with the scrimshaw when the effigy has come to life; I would think she’d want to be with the effigy.  Anyway, a clearer chain of cause and effect with a simpler and more powerful emotional impact could work better.  Perhaps taking the scrimshaw makes Leth possessed and frees Kaneq.  Leth could compel the interns to burn Oskar to death, and Kaneq could try to stop him, and Leth could throw her in the fire.  This would make Leth more active (tragically so) and would make me sympathize more with Kaneq in her death.

It’s disappointing that we don’t see the effigy in action a little more.  We’re told it tramples the interns, but that happens very fast and I don’t really know the interns, so it doesn’t have much impact.  It’s also disappointing that the effigy doesn’t do anything with its cool shark heads.  Perhaps the shark heads could rip the interns apart.  And maybe one could bite off Leth’s arm.  Or if the shark heads are made of smoke, perhaps when they bite you, that part of your body turns to smoke and goes into the effigy.  So pieces of their bodies are going up in smoke, which would be creepy.

Other elements that I think could be strengthened are the format and the narrator.  Formatting this as a screenplay with phrases like “CUT TO” and “INT. BASE CAMP LODGE,” for me, undermines the premise you establish in the first two paragraphs.  I don’t believe the government created a transcript like this.  I think the piece would be more believable if it didn’t contain the screenplay terms and was formatted more like a government transcript.  Getting some actual government transcripts for comparison would be helpful.

I think the piece also needs to address why the government would release this transcript.  This could not only make the piece more believable but could add a second layer to the story.  For example, perhaps the surviving Inuit took the camera after killing Leth and let a local news channel run a few clips of the footage.  Perhaps the government then arrested the Inuit for murder and released the transcript to discredit his claims and the video clips.  In that case, the narrator, the person providing the descriptions of the characters and action, would have an agenda in writing that narration.  He could be trying to explain away any signs of the supernatural and say that the expedition members became hysterical after Holger was killed, or started to hallucinate when exposed to the chemical smoke in the cave.  This would give the government a goal it is trying to achieve, making it essentially yet another force in opposition to Leth and his team.  As is, the narration is pretty objective, making me emotionally distant and minimizing any subtext in the story.  I would be more intellectually involved if I were trying to figure out what really happened, as opposed to what the narrator is telling me happened, and I’d be more emotionally involved if I felt the government was trying to cover up what really killed Leth and his team.

One final point I’d like to mention.  I don’t know why Leth is referred to by his last name, when Kaneq is referred to by her first name.  It would be better to be consistent, since the government is making these choices and probably has a policy about transcripts.

This piece took on a great challenge in telling this story through a found-footage transcript.  It held my interest throughout and painted some vivid and disturbing images.

I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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 Machine Wasn’t In The Mood by Kate Ellis

“The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” is a gem in the making: dryly funny, sincere, thoughtful, and instantly relatable when it comes to those desperate attempts to suss out what’s behind your favourite band’s lyrics. I was drawn to this piece this month by its instant sense of atmosphere, but saw what the author’s notes are describing as confusion in this draft. So this month, I’d like to discuss some strategies for handling ambiguity in a way that helps readers digest it smoothly.

Nostalgia, whether it’s being thwarted or not, works on evoking the feeling of a time and place, and “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” has a wonderful hand with its descriptive metaphors—each of them unique and precise and just full of personality—and a great eye for detail. The use of pop culture references is deft and well-timed, not too many to overwhelm but enough to shorthand a few personalities and places without eating page space.

But where this piece really shines is in how it lines up every aspect of its craft to express its central themes.

“The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” subtly and smartly layers together a peek at that gap between projection and what’s really going on in a number of ways, all of which are slightly different but work together to—to borrow the metaphor—form a harmonic chord. The point about the difference between algorithms and real people, the difference between “authentic” and flawed music (The Waffle Irons) and Niles Deep as the stand-in for formula and what’s most acceptable, and the town built by people overrun now with car dealerships and chain stores (but still never Barry’s idea of Americana) all work together to establish that question from different angles. And then it’s neatly developed with the idea that no, a whole town isn’t going to stop dead to become a shrine to a half-successful indie band regardless of what the fandom might yearn for; it’s alive, it’s real, and it’s going to keep living—resonating with Flo’s “question is would I want to” at the idea of flattening Mapes out into something simple and digestible, and a classroom full of comp sci students Sam thinks of as “the next generation of Niles Deeps” nonetheless slipping the leash of what they’re expected to be doing.

As a diagnostic: I can tell as a reader that this silt of thematic ideas is working because when their conclusion pays off—“It was okay to make the wrong moves because you eventually landed on the right ones. And if you didn’t? You were still running on your own algorithm and not someone else’s.”—it’s powerful for me.

These aren’t ideas calling explicit attention to themselves; they’re tucked in the corners, slowly adding up like mercury. The way they accrete forms a foundational cohesion: Those layers of thematic imagery here resonate so very well that despite the author’s feeling of mess, they’re telling me what “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” is about and how to read what develops next on the plot level.

That’s why when the speculative element and the mathematics come in, it doesn’t read to me as out of left field, but surprising and fascinating: I’ve been primed as a reader for something other than the story the tropes say to expect, and it hooks perfectly into the already-established question of patterns and algorithms Niles Deep created.

I am hearing the author’s concern about complication and confusion, and while I don’t think this is in as rough shape as spending a pile of time with a story can make us feel, there are places I can suggest sharpening and focusing—and some thoughts on how to diagnose the ending. They’re mostly to do with how the ambiguities in the story are handled.

I think where “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” can be more focused—and achieve its effects more strongly, is where the resonances and ties between ideas are weaker. Some of the arcs in “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” do resolve satisfyingly, but in a story that’s built so strongly on its thematic layer, it’s ideal to be able to take every single one of those threads and trace it through an arc of conflict: problem, process, resolution. I’d suggest disentangling that stuck feeling by looking at places where those ties aren’t as cohesive, or where problem doesn’t make it through process to some new understanding, or fold into the resolution of another problem. Those are little things, but they introduce elements of ambiguity that can fuzz or distort the ambiguities you’re putting there on purpose, and the more noise we can clear as writers, the better the signal can come through.

Notably, I think there’s still room to anchor the core ideas of that projection gap and the glory of real things being weirder and sometimes better than we imagined to some of the other stuff floating around Sam’s life: Lise’s obvious cheating, Sam’s mother’s professional lack of faith, that overwhelming sense of freelancer poverty failure (good observation on the age-inappropriate sneakers, by the way; your Resident Editor knows those feels), Barry’s idea of “when it was okay to be aspirational”, the liner notes’ idea of ideal women as “girls with (the) unambitious dreams”, and the whole emergent question of what failure and success means. There’s something rising through the subtext here about how the notion of fucking up isn’t even a yardstick, it’s 100% the wrong question, but depending on where the author wants to go with that, the connections could be a little more explicit or tighter.

On the plot level, I’m personally fine with stories where the speculative element is standing just offscreen, in the shadows. It’s visible enough to readers to be fun and intriguing in that Where’s Fluffy? kind of way—Mapes’s money, the shadowy government men, and the very commitment to unknowability—but I’d suggest bringing out at least one element of the ending just slightly more.

On one hand: Sam and Flo obviously break into the house, and see something, and Sam decides not to talk about it in print but imply that there’s more to the story.

On the other hand: There’s the ghost of some embryonic relationship between Sam and Flo forming (“yet another possibility bouncing between them”), but given the age gap and where their arc ends—about to break into Mapes’s house (why specifically?), there’s not enough on the page at present to tell me what it is. I think part of the trouble here is there are clues that can read in a few different directions: the potential connection between Flo’s ENIAC comment and the pressure on Sam to become, specifically, a teacher could suggest she’s helping Flo reclaim a lost road and get back to her own self; the trouble with Lise and that quote above could suggest something romantic. But it’s not quite on the page yet.

I think some of that ambiguity in both elements of the ending—plot arc and character arc—is part of the trouble the author’s been feeling with the ending. If there’s more solidity in one element, the ambiguity in the other can come through more clearly as signal—and as the kind of narrative potential readers can fill in in their heads, off the page. When both elements that are supposed to be closing in a way that produces readerly satisfaction are uncertain in terms of what happened, and their outcomes, it’s harder to figure out which way to go. I think putting a little more on the page in just one of those areas could really help focus and solidify that confused feeling at the end—or at least provide a solid starting point for further repairs.

But I would very much not give up on this. It’s delightfully complex, subtle, funny, and original, and it’s well on its way to gelling—and, I think, finding a good home in print.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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