Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Melisandre With The Good Hair by Kate Tyte

This story provides an exciting new perspective on the fairytale “Melisande” by setting it in a near-future world and exploring the consequences of hair that won’t stop growing and grows faster each time it’s cut.  That novum is conveyed quickly through details of the setting, so by the end of the first paragraph I’m excited and engaged.  The way that the hair is managed and handled and all the ways that it’s used in the society are fascinating, and I think those are the greatest strengths of the story.

The story also has some vivid, chilling description of the way Melisandre is kept so that her hair remains controlled.

The story builds anticipation as the first-person narrator, Leonore, or Leo for short, heads to Melisandre’s Tower, where the woman with the magical hair lives, to start her job.  Starting a story with a character traveling and thinking about her life is usually a weak way to start.  Here, the character is traveling but not thinking about her life.  She’s simply describing the setting, and it’s a very interesting one, revealing the different attitudes people have about Melisandre.  This provides us with different possibilities to consider as we realize Leo has a secret agenda in taking this job that gives her access to Melisandre.  I get very involved in trying to figure out what Leo’s relationship with Melisandre is and what Leo’s goal is.  The mystery aspect of the plot works well until these two questions are answered.

One area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot after the mysteries have been revealed.  As Leo converses with Melisandre, we realize they are sisters and that the plan is for Melisandre to be scalped, so she can finally be free of her hair.  The idea of scalping her, which they may or may not be able to do without guards stopping them, and which Melisandre may or may not survive, and which may or may not stop the supernatural hair growth, carries a lot of suspense.  Once the story allows me to figure these things out, I’m eager to see the attempt be made, so I can see whether they’ll be able to pull it off and what the results will be.  The story allows readers to solve these mysteries about 4200 words into the story, so there are about 2900 words after that.  Unfortunately, during those final 2900 words, instead of the plot building to a climax, it simply provides exposition about how Melisandre came to have this magical hair (she doesn’t know) and what happened as she and the world struggled to deal with it before developing the current system.  Since Melisandre doesn’t know how she came to have magical hair, except that she wished for it a lot, I think that could be dealt with in a sentence, since spending more time on it doesn’t add to the story.  Since everyone in the scene would already know what happened as the world struggled to deal with Melisandre’s hair, this is “as you know, Bob” dialogue, in which one character tells another something they both know.  This is generally weak, since people don’t tend to talk to each other this way.  This additional dialogue/exposition, which takes up most of the remaining words, doesn’t add significantly to the story.  No new mysteries or sources of suspense arise, and the existing suspense declines.  At the end of the story, Leo contrives to slip a piece of glass to Melisandre, with which she can attempt to scalp herself, and the story ends.  So the events I’ve been waiting for through the last 2900 words never happen; the suspense I felt is not resolved in a satisfying way, and there is no climax or catharsis.

If we knew that all Melisandre needed was a piece of glass and she would scalp herself, survive, and be free of the curse, then ending as this story does would be fine, because we could fill in the rest ourselves.  But these things are not at all certain, which is what creates the suspense and keeps me reading to find out what will happen.  That makes those last 2900 words disappointing.

It’s also hard to believe that a person could scalp herself, so Leo’s plan seems unwise and cowardly.  I think Leo would have a much better chance of scalping Melisandre than Melisandre would of scalping herself.  Since Melisandre is watched constantly, the guards will be an issue in either situation.  The only downside of Leo doing the scalping is that the other two nurses would be nearby.  But they don’t seem the type to put up a fight.  I think Leo could have a plan to tangle them up in the hair or the IV line, or jam the door with the nurses outside, and then attempt the scalping.  I’d be very excited to see this, whatever the outcome.

The other element that could be strengthened is the relationship arc between the sisters, which relates to the characterization and the causal chain.  Right now, both sisters remain the same through the story, and the relationship remains the same, with Leo basically coming and saying, “Here’s a plan for you to scalp yourself,” and Melisandre accepting that.  That’s not terribly dynamic.  Some change in the characters or their relationship would make the story stronger.

What does that have to do with the causal chain?  We don’t know why Melisandre’s hair became magical, which is one weakness in the causal chain.  We also don’t know why Leo is doing this for her sister or why she leaves the task of scalping to Melisandre.  It seems like there was a rift between the sisters and the father made Leo promise to try to save Melisandre.  If he had to make her promise, that suggests she wouldn’t have helped Melisandre otherwise.  That reinforces my feeling that there was a rift and that’s why Leo stayed away for so long.  I don’t believe she was training for years to learn how to help her sister.  So if there was a rift, does Leo still resent her sister?  Is that why she’s going to make Melisandre scalp herself?  I don’t think that’s what the story is trying to convey, though that would be one way to strengthen Leo’s motivation in leaving the glass with Melisandre.  It could be a sort of “screw you” solution:  You want to be free of your beautiful hair?  Scalp yourself.

Another solution could not only explain why Leo has come but why Melisandre’s hair became magical.  What if Leo resented Melisandre with all her vanity and put this curse on her?  And now, finally, with the father’s deathbed plea and her promise, she feels she has to do something to try to put things right.  If she’s still resentful, she could plan to do the screw-you solution, giving Melisandre the piece of glass and considering her promise to her father fulfilled.  If she’s horrified by the curse she placed as a child and wants to help, then she could plan to do the scalping herself.  Or, probably the strongest option, if she walks into the room resentful and planning the screw-you, but seeing Melisandre and interacting with her makes her realize what a horrible thing she did to her sister, she could have a change of heart and decide to do the scalping herself, though it will almost certainly lead to her incarceration or death. That would allow a change in character and a change in the relationship.

For myself, I’d love to see that last option, with the sisters working out some of their problems in the subtext of the dialogue.  At first, the anger they feel toward each other could come out, but then they could move beyond it, Melisandre apologizing–in the subtext–for her selfishness and vanity, Leo apologizing for her resentment and jealousy.  A relationship arc like that, leading them both to take this dangerous action, could be very moving.  In that case, I don’t know that I’d need to see the outcome.  The story would be more about these two sisters coming together.

One other option that would accomplish some of the same things would be for Melisandre to have the plan to scalp.  Leo might come in to gloat over Melisandre’s predicament, and Melisandre could try to convince her–in the subtext–to help her execute the plan.  Leo might have a change of heart and help Melisandre, or not.

The story has many strengths.  The world and the situation are striking, and the mystery of Leo’s identity and mission is engaging.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Grapevine/Market News

Dark Matter Magazine will be open for submissions from October 18 to October 31, 2021.They accept Science-fiction and Horror. There must be a sci-fi element. They are looking for stories 1,000 to 5,000 words long, and pay is 8 cents per word. More details here.

Podcastle will be open to submissions from November 1 to November 30, 2021. They are looking for all kinds of high and low fantasy, and everything in-between, but the fantastical element must be meaningful to the story. Original fiction up to 6,000 words, and reprints up to 17,000 words. Query any reprints over 6,000. 8 cents per word original fiction, a flat $100.00 for reprints. More details here.
 

Publication News

Anne Michi Hansell wanted everyone to know: “The White Enso magazine has accepted my story, “The Haunted Girl” (formerly The Sherwood Park Fairy); I believe it should appear in its Fall issue soon.”

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Safety Net by Bryan Andrews

“Safety Net” caught my eye this month with its observant but not cynical portrait of a cashless company-town in a post-ecological-disaster world and the difference between indirect and concrete aid. It’s an interesting—and deliberate—update of classic hard-boiled tropes which just underlines how relevant those tropes are to us right here and now. However, in sticking a little too close to the tropes it’s, I think, underselling its own conclusion. So this month, I’d like to discuss where tropes help us—and their limits.

The most obvious strength in “Safety Net” is how every element of craft is working together to underpin its themes. Hardboileds are absolutely, completely about precarity, class, and a certain idea of how integrity stands or falters in the face of everything else. And “Safety Net” pulls that question into play from every direction, explicitly and implicitly.

Precarity is everywhere in this story, and it’s been built in a way that doesn’t feel overexposited or underintegrated. The worldbuilding sets the tone with zeppelins, greenhouses, lack of real wood hinting at an ecological catastrophe in progress quietly in the background. There’s also a great dose of people working with their environment: the multiplicity of transit modes is both a great way to show class disparity in a multicultural, ecologically ravaged context, but also, it’s just pretty fun.

On the next layer, how people interact with this environment and each other underscores that tension. There’s a lot of playfulness in things like the casual death of gendered dress codes, but underneath it lurks a visible scarcity of human connection and trust—between Greg and his son or bodyguard, between the businesspeople on the zeppelin, between the father and his robot-tended baby. Horace’s almost gleeful reactions to having expense accounts make him a part of this system, even as he tries to resist it, in a very believable way.

And that’s what cements the precarity of this world: the ways people try to resist their it. Behind the roiling, oppressive atmosphere of labour unrest and harsh policing, everyone in this piece is covertly trying to help someone else: Greg’s management business, Crayg’s unsatisfying advocacy work, Horace’s quasi-detective career. They all mean well, and they all come up hard against their own limits in this system, and that pulls the tropes of hardboileds and noir through absolutely.

The prose is fairly clean and transparent, although there’s a distinct habit around comma splices, which can really throw a lot of readers. I’d suggest putting some attention into that not out of a prescriptive idea about grammar, but because there are a lot of ways punctuation can slow, speed up, mediate, or move the rhythm of a sentence, and sticking so closely to one (and one that frequently hides the meaning of the sentence) takes tools out of our hands as writers.

But there are some great descriptive moments here. “Face like an arrowhead” is a unique, concise description, and Crayg being defined by a beard he’s yet to grow into says a great thing about his relationship to adulthood and what he’s striving for without having to explicitly say it. But there are also a few instances where the thought hasn’t entirely made it onto the page. What “Safety Net” means that Ross “made four right turns in a row” is interpretable, but it takes a minute. I think it’s possible to slightly build out some of those moments and phrases that are only sketched in at present to make this a smoother read.

The main thing I’d suggest as a focus for the next draft, however, is that the ending of “Safety Net” strikes a little lightly. Despite the little bit of a crush he’s nursing, Horace exposes Greg’s corruption to Crayg and resolves that he’s going to take a beating for outing Greg as being behind the crackdown. But as a reader, I’m left a little unsatisfied: how does this ending resolve, comment on, or extend the questions “Safety Net” has been asking about precarity, change, how people mash up against systems?

This is where, I think, the modern story has run into the historical tropes and lost a little: the idea of a detective figure who ghosts through others’ lives, setting things right and then moving on, is pretty foundational to the genre. But when it’s ported into this context, things change. It takes on a certain tone when Horace is the precarious-living, poverty-struck expert on how people really live in Cable—stuck in his situation, cheerfully resigned to everything staying the same—and the people who experience change and resolution are the hyper-rich plutocrats. The loneliness of a person with a code, when it’s set against the labour protests, the stacked game, and the reasonable doubt that a rich son is actually going to entirely ruin his rich parent or their platform—tips into something like futility.

It’s a moment to perhaps step back and ask: What is this story saying in the now, outside the references, and what do I want it to say?

I think there are ways to create that modern narrative satisfaction—to write a workable end for this story—while still sticking to the mission of inverting, updating, and commenting on hardboiled and noir tropes. It might require stepping back from what the genre does and thinking first about what “Safety Net” does, and what it’s supposed to communicate to readers, and then tying that idea back to how its genre talks.

But I think this piece is well on its way, and with some thought, some polishing on the sentence level, and a few more rounds of revision, should be ready to send out into the world.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

On The Shelves

Any Sign Of Life by Rae Carson (Green Willow Books, October 2021) 

When a teenage girl thinks she may be the only person left alive in her town—maybe in the whole world—she must rely on hope, trust, and her own resilience. A harrowing and pulse-pounding survival story from New York Times–bestselling author Rae Carson. 

Paige Miller is determined to take her basketball team to the state championship, maybe even beyond. But as March Madness heats up, Paige falls deathly ill. Days later, she wakes up attached to an IV and learns that the whole world has perished. Everyone she loves, and all of her dreams for the future—they’re gone.

But Paige is a warrior. She pushes through her fear and her grief and gets through each day scrounging for food, for shelter, for safety. As she struggles with her new reality, Paige learns that the apocalypse did not happen by accident. And that there are worse things than being alone.

New York Times–bestselling author Rae Carson tells a contemporary and all-too-realistic story about surviving against the odds in this near-future thriller. Any Sign of Life will electrify fans of Rory Power’s Wilder Girls and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Science 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.

Bee Houe Rising – CHAPTER 1 by Keby Boyer

I was drawn to this submission by its title (even with the typo on the website) and by the author’s voice in the introductory note. It’s concise and confident, with a distinct edge of humor, and it says precisely as much as it needs to say about the novel and the chapter. I’m impressed. It’s not easy to make it look that effortless.

The chapter, for me, met the expectations set by title and note. It’s tightly written, sharp and focused with a distinctive, wryly funny, yet lyrical style. It knows just how fast the story needs to move, and just how much the reader needs to know in order to ride along with the shaman and her companions.

If the rest of the novel keeps up the pacing I see here, and the overall structure of plot and development of character is as solid as it is in this first chapter, I think it’s just about ready to go to line edits. Characters, setting, and story are strong and sure of themselves. The minutiae of the prose are where the ms. needs work.

That’s especially important when the rest of the writer’s craft is as accomplished as what I see here. The structure is beautiful. Cleaning up the prose will apply the last layer of polish.

The first question I would ask is, why is the main character persistently referred to as “the old shaman woman”? A shaman can be any gender or none. Is there a plot-related reason why we have to be told, repeatedly, that the shaman is a woman? If so, maybe a phrase or a line could clarify this, or point toward a later explanation?

I think too that I would have liked to know how much taller and broader she is than Joe Ironhorse, right at the point when we first see them together, rather than toward the end of the chapter. There’s a hint of it when she teases him about his height, but we don’t see the full contrast between them. It seems as if that detail might be more apposite there than later on in the scene. Then when he performs his feat of strength, we’ll be even more impressed by it, because we’ve been getting the visual all along.

The writing in general, the imagery, the vividness of description and phrasing, is very, very good. There is however a particular habit that might bear rethinking, and that is the tendency to dangle phrases. For example:

All scraped knees and missing her two front teeth, the intensity of the girl’s aura crackled like lightning through the desert heat. 

This is a wonderful image, but the structure of the sentence is broken in the middle. The knees and teeth belong to the aura rather than the girl.

The same applies to

A stoic, stooped-shouldered old man dressed in a red plaid shirt and worn Levis, his long white hair fell straight down

Syntactically, the sentence says that the hair is a man dressed in a shirt and Levis. It’s inside out: hair contains the man, rather than the other way around.

In a subtler way, a similar thing is happening here:

Joe pulled a handkerchief that smelled of wind and spice and magic from his back pocket,

Gorgeous imagery, inside-out phrasing. Wind and spice, and magic from his back pocket. Which is actually a lovely image, but I don’t think it’s what the sentence wants to mean.

One last thing that struck me as I read was that when Joe and the shaman are talking, they seem to be completely alone. The chanting and drumming disappear. It’s summed up pretty clearly here:

The sounds of drums, bells, and chanting continued as they drank the scotch, smoked the weed, and enjoyed the comfortable silence that often happens between two very old friends.

On the one hand I love the juxtaposition of noise and silence. On the other, I feel as if I want just a little more. Another phrase or two layered through the scene, that establishes how they can be alone together no matter how tumultuous their surroundings are.

I think what I may be missing is the sense that the other people in the scene are real; that they have independent existence. Eddie and the little girl and the dog vanish once Joe and the shaman meet. It feels as if they, and the rest of the people gathered there, need to be more perceptibly present, even if they’re far in the background. The writer’s craft that I see here is strong enough to do that, without losing the tight connection between Joe and the shaman.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece, and promises some strong, witty, deft writing as the story unwinds itself. It just a needs a little shining up here and there.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Hell Kitchen Chapter 3 by Anneloup Roncin

This chapter has a lot of energy. It’s hectic, almost frenetic, even though Clay’s voice is tired and jaded and seen-it-all. It moves along briskly. There’s no slack in it; no dead air. It keeps the pages turning, and ends on a note that pulls the reader along toward the next chapter.

For me, the exposition works. It explains where it needs to, without stalling out the movement of the story. If it repeats information conveyed in the earlier chapters, then it might be worth deciding which iterations to keep, but on a cold read, straight into chapter 3, it does what it needs to do. There are some quietly startling bits, and I like those: the freezer full of human meat, for example. That sums up this world in a single gut-punch of information.

One thing I would suggest when the ms. gets to the line-edit phase is to pay really close attention to the meaning of words and the framing of idioms. I had to stop here and there and try to figure out what the words were trying to say:

watching Cleo take a Fang’s order with a crisped expression,

for example. I’m not sure what crisped wants to mean.

his back to a wall, his baskets that clash with his suit.  

The same with baskets. Maybe I’m missing a reference in an earlier chapter?

The one other thing I might ask is more of a structural question. Clay notes that the staff have been making a point of staying after hours, but he doesn’t seem to wonder why they’re doing it. It’s an inconvenience, but he isn’t making an effort to find out what it means. Nor does he seem perturbed by it, though it’s clearly a major departure from normal behavior. That needs a bit more clearing up, I think, and a bit more attention on his part. Or if he has a reason not to care, that could be clearer, as well.

As for the introduction of Mia Herrera, it is certainly dramatic. Clay doubles down on her being angry. Angry is her defining trait. She might show a few more layers of personality here, a little more complexity. Not a lot—it’s clearly the prelude to an action scene, and it needs to move along quickly. But she could show another trait or two that enhances the anger and hints at who and what she is apart from the fiery temper.

Overall I think it’s a pretty effective chapter. It builds on the situation established by the opening chapters, adds further complications to the plot, and moves on quickly toward the next stage of the story.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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 Gift Of The Spirit by Michelle Dupler

It can be difficult to pin down exactly how a character is developed in readers’ minds, which details, which actions, and which thoughts stand out, and how they combine to build a sense of character for readers. In “A Gift for the Spirit,” the protagonist, Marit, is defined primarily in two strong sections:

“Marit liked the feeling of driving, of being in control and leading the way on the winding dusty roads.”

“Marit was an attractive young woman. She knew that, knew it was part of the draw. She had movie star platinum hair and red bow lips and made sure she was always immaculately dressed for them in pure white. Truth was, she enjoyed how they revered her, revered her gift. She had become more than some pretty girl that men wanted to use. Now, she was these folks’ angelic touch of Heaven, and their spare dollars and coins kept her and Mama Jo and Papa Luke well fed.”

While more information about Marit is provided, particularly in exposition about her past, it’s these passages that most strongly define Marit in the present of the story, the type of person she is and what is important to her.  Each of these passages accomplishes multiple things, making them both efficient and effective.  In the first one, we get description of setting, an evocation of the sensory experience of driving that attaches us to Marit, and the emotional effect of driving on Marit.  The second passage provides a vivid image of Marit’s appearance, Marit’s assessment of how others see her, Marit’s feeling about that assessment, several aspects of her motivation for becoming what she is.  The interaction of the different elements within these passages gives a sense of reality and depth to them, so Marit’s character comes through strongly.  They also provide density to the prose, so each sentence and each paragraph is accomplishing multiple purposes.  That’s an important technique for all fiction, and especially for flash fiction, which this story is.

An area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot, which is about Marit’s deal with a dark spirit that has consequences she didn’t expect.  The story provides exposition about the formation of the deal and the price Marit has agreed to pay:  giving the spirit a good memory for every time she receives his power.

As Marit holds her latest session showing her power to the people, she realizes she’s giving her last positive memory to the spirit.  At the end of the story, the spirit blasts fire over the people, killing everyone but Marit.

While Marit’s personality comes across pretty strongly, she’s a fairly passive protagonist.  She knows she’s running out of positive memories, but she just continues using them up, down to the last one.  She doesn’t seem to have any plan for what to do after she has no more memories to continue her deal with the spirit.  She doesn’t seem to have saved money to sustain her after she can’t make money with her gift.  Perhaps Marit feels she has no options and feels trapped in her course of action, or perhaps she’s addicted to the reverence others give her and can’t resist this last fix, or perhaps she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power.  But none of those are established or even implied.  While motivation can sometimes be left ambiguous, readers generally need several compelling possibilities to be implied that they can contemplate.  For me, instead of this, her motivation seems neglected.

If we had a sense that she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power, so she just wants to experience it as many times as possible and then doesn’t care what happens to her, that could make her seem more active, since she’s making a decision to go ahead despite knowing she’s losing her last memory.  This could also give the ending more significance, since we would see that her selfish decision leads to harm for the people.

The plot also lacks a strong causal chain.  Instead of this final experience going as usual, black flames burst out and consume everyone.  Why?  When there isn’t a strong reason for something happening, it feels as if the author made it happen.  That undermines readers’ belief in the story and the emotional impact of events.  If Marit’s lack of positive memories makes her very angry and dark, and she gets jealous and even angrier when she senses the positive memories in the audience, maybe she would use the spirit’s power to burn everyone up.  That would provide a strong causal chain.

Without a stronger understanding of why Marit gives up her last positive memory and a stronger cause for the black flames that burn everyone, it’s hard to find meaning or emotional impact in the end of the story.  But adding those elements could make the story more powerful and resonant.

The story has many strengths and kept me engaged throughout.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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