Editor’s Choice Review January 2017, 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.

Burning Season by Cherae Clark

“Burning Season” caught my eye this month with its fascinating linguistic worldbuilding: a city where cultural purge is the norm, which isn’t even sure if it believes its own myths anymore—and one we see through a protagonist who has been a collaborator, and has very little to believe in as well.  It’s a story that’s doing some adept, fascinating work, but also feels like it has yet to fully inhabit its concept. So this month, I’d like to discuss why finding the right size for a story matters, and what it means, on a pure craft level, to commit to the stories we’re telling.

“Burning Season” already stands apart just by nature of its subject matter: sociolinguistic speculative elements are a lot more common in science fiction than in fantasy, and while the idea of an ever-colonized city isn’t a new one in fantasy, focusing a story on the ground-level experience of the people who live there—the writing and rewriting of culture and customs that would mean for them, and how it shapes them—is, just by existing, an excellently interesting piece of trope pushback.

As is casting Saman as a collaborator—one who isn’t faking being casual about their relationship with Kiroga or their attitude to politics.  As well as subverting the idea of the vulnerability-free, passionate hero, Saman’s hesitation and flaws and going along to get along are a highly effective way to make Rashid feel real as a colonized city.  Saman’s own internal colonization resonates well with the constant presence of violence in the streets, and combines with the deft use of a few other details—how Saman and the other characters handle that sense of language, code-switching and cross-communicating across a whole spectrum of social language taboos; the history people don’t actually want to talk about; and the way characters are believeably non-fluent in a language—to bring Rashid off the page and make it feel real.  The small touches of ambiguous futures throughout the piece—Borlena’s perhaps-daughter, where Liral is now—and the drumbeat repetition of I don’t know the story combine with that trope pushback to tell readers this isn’t the usual fare.

Though it’s got my attention with what it’s not, I think “Burning Season” could come out much more strongly on the page with what it is.  The author’s mentioned being unsure if this can work as a short piece or needs to be expanded, and I’d argue there’s an intersection of both needs here—as a short piece, it would be more effective trimmed shorter to make sure it delivers a clear and effective narrative, but in terms of plot, “Burning Season” ends just as the story is getting started.

Either way, I’d suggest trimming the piece down as a first move.  Making sure it has the same amount of words as story helps eliminate the feeling of drag that shows up throughout the piece, and will help make that expand-prose-or-contract-plot decision from much firmer ground.

That tightening to get the gaps and air bubbles out is a lens that can be applied in a few ways; the sentence level is the most obvious.  For example, the very first sentence is a good candidate for a quick tightening.  Consider the difference between the current opening line:

“It started with something foolish, as most things like to be known as tragedies usually do.”

–and a tighter, leaner version:

“It started with something foolish, as most tragedies do.”

What’s been taken out is mostly qualifying, hesitation, and hedging. “Most” and “usually” qualify the same Not All Tragedies idea in the same way; there’s no reason to say the things that might maybe be known as tragedies where one word will do—yes, tragedies, that’s what we’re talking about here.

This isn’t a flinch that’s consistent throughout “Burning Season”; the second paragraph, “It was burning season in Rashid. Again,” is a beautifully authoritative sentence, and sets a huge amount of tone and reader expectation in seven little words.  The description of Slaughterhouse is absolutely evocative.  The single gunshot is left on the page like a stain and its aftermath allowed to bloom in a way that has real impact.  Just as I’d suggest finding those moments that are hesitating, repeating themselves, hedging, and clearing them up, I’d suggest finding the moments of clear, confident, evocative prose and making sure they have the space to shine.

On a more macro level, I’d suggest looking at every interaction and scene and seeing how it’s either building the argument or taking the narrative forward—and trimming if it’s not working to a goal.  For example, I’d suggest shortening the opening interaction with Borlena.  As an establishing shot, the initial paragraphs do the trick quite nicely of telling us what the omniloquists are and do; what the conversation with Borlena seems to underline most, right now, is a roguish, Bogartesque, I-stick-my-neck-out-for-nobody protagonist.  That’s an archetype that’s worn enough around the edges that it’s sticking out harshly against the rather innovative worldbuilding: it feels as if it’s gotten less quality thought than the world itself.

As a side note, there are a few other aspects of “Burning Season” that could perhaps use more evidence on the page of careful thought.  The explanation of the city layout is the most notable example, which—forgive me—reminds me a bit of a game of SimCity (industrial zone right up next to residential zone!), and created some disconnect from the story for this reader: With the wonderful linguistic layering of Rashid telling me this is not what conquest looks like and Saman’s messy history telling me this is not what living through war looks like, having a very basic approach to what city planning looks like grates against the sense of realism that the story’s already established.  Every other aspect of this piece has embraced complexity; when a craft element doesn’t, “Burning Season” falls down for me as a reader.

Which brings me back to the author’s question: To refine as a workable short story, or to expand “Burning Season” into something larger?

Ultimately, I think that decision lies in the answer to a simple question—one that works best when asked after refining a piece into its most effective shape.  What is “Burning Season” meant to get across, and in short story format, is it getting that across as well as it could?

While stories evolve on the page—and that’s a good thing!—we start off a piece with something we want to communicate.  Writing is, always, at its heart, communication.  When considering whether to expand or contract a piece, the most useful way of reframing that question is to ask which toolset—short story, novella, or more—will get that crucial something across to readers in the most effective way.

Ultimately, everything we work with is a tool; what we—and our work—have to say for ourselves is what makes our stories come alive.  So I’d advise asking what “Burning Season” has to say with its complexity and ambiguity—without flinching, without shorthands, being utterly itself—and picking the form that will make it the clearest version of itself.

Best of luck!

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

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