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.
Bird’s Eye by RM Grave
I was drawn to “Bird’s Eye” by the dense, luscious language and the sense that this piece was something ambitious: a shot at a David Mitchell-style nested, interconnected-universe structure in short form, relying on flights of prose, imagination, and style to try to do something that feels entirely new. However, it’s both standing and somewhat wobbling on the core element of craft it’s using: voice. So this month, I’d like to talk about voice: both narrative voice, the voice of our characters, and how we approach experimentalism—what we do with our own authorial voice.
Voice is not a flimsy thing for this particular workshopper to rely on, and I’m not surprised that I enjoyed the prose in “Bird’s Eye”. I’m always fond of this particular author’s prose work, and there are beautiful turns of phrase here: the universe, which sides with the magpie always. If emotion rules our world, then stories are its militia. And I say to you: if wild-terriers come for me tonight I will feed them my heart first. If tabby-cats, then I will dig holes up and down my belly and have them suckle blood. The prose here is frequently just breathtaking, with a great understanding of cadence, image, rhythm. It’s a firm foundation for an experiment, one that’ll carry a piece through.
And there’s good prose work—and voice work—throughout, but work that’s not entirely yet controlled. While the overdramatic, melodramatic, operatic is definitely a part of the first protagonist’s voice—and I would not ask her to be less catty and loud and yet thoroughly and vulnerably human, because she’s difficult as hell, but she’s lovely in her complexity—I found this piece a bit overdense, overgrown in places: for example, there are easy trims in “its fried chicken. My fried chicken. (A bird that never flew, by the way, until I flung it across the polygon of limp grass and dog-do after it failed to provide me with the dot of pleasure I had hoped for.)”—the repetition and the aside aren’t necessarily adding something here, I think—or “Sweetness for my bitterness” and “against all that wants to pull me down into the ground beside you” and “The collective noun for men is an ‘actually’. An actually of men”, which have all already made themselves implicit by the surrounding lines.
There are at least a double dozen spots like this where “Bird’s Eye” would, I think, benefit from some trimming back in the less important places, so that the turns of phrase which describe something emotionally significant, which are heartbreaking, have a little more air to grow.
With the switch to the second section—we’ll call it smile section—there’s a layer of complexity added to the experiment: differentiation of characters’ narrative voices becomes a factor.
We don’t always spend much time differentiating between what we mean by authorial voice and a protagonist’s narrative voice; they’re elements of craft most people describe more by feel than by a set of parameters. I’d suggest a personal theory: to look at voice as a set of consistencies. What common elements, quirks, tricks, do readers look at to know, going in blind, if a story is you?
Those consistencies throughout a story are important—but putting some difference and stretch in them matters when we’re writing different narrative voices in the same piece. And “Bird’s Eye” doesn’t quite hit the balance, for me, of differentiation and consistency. There are a few too many telling consistencies to truly feel as if the second section is narrated by someone different than the first: the list-making, the tonality, and—even with the comparative spareness of this narrator’s voice versus the last one—the rhythm of the prose. That question of prose rhythm is definitely about the author, rather than the narrators, and it’s something that will probably take a conscious effort to alter; that’s your voice coming through.
What I’d suggest to solve this problem is not to reduce consistencies, though, but to make the consistent parts of the narrative rely on different elements of craft: notably, the symbolic/thematic and the structural. I think we can tend to balance our stories on our strongest element of craft, but spreading the load out over different elements of craft balances them better, just like adding a few more legs to a chair.
There’s already work being done there: the continuous thread of the magpie, grief, and coping. I’d suggest putting more of a spotlight on those structural elements: the idea of three interconnected universes, ruled by either emotion, intellect, or behaviour, is so emotionally unsaturated compared to the rest of that protagonist’s grief that it doesn’t stand out to me as something important—and it’s the key to the whole story.
As a small thing, I’m also thinking of ways to make the story loop—the do at the beginning—a little more obviously deliberate. I’d suggest maybe setting it off on a separate line? I initially thought it was a typo, and while that’s a misconception that’s lovely to upend in a workshop setting, it might go over less well in print.
Experimental fiction is always going to hit a few more obstacles than something that’s, in terms of technique, working more well-used territory. I’d suggest being patient with this piece: especially with dense or ambitious stories, it’s not uncommon to solve one problem and find you’ve unearthed or inadvertently created another, and then have to rebalance the entire piece again. The patience and work is worth it, though: It’s an interesting experiment always, seeing if we can stretch ourselves into a space or technique.
On a final note, regarding authorial voice: There’s a tangible and decided influence to “Bird’s Eye”: The smile section is a pure David Mitchell future, and the progression of mimetic world to dystopian to post-apocalyptic—and transcendent—is very familiar from Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.There’s nothing wrong per se with taking a run at structures another author has demonstrated. It’s in a lot of ways how we learn: by trying it out ourselves, and seeing which pieces of another person’s toolbox fit in our hands, and which aren’t actually interesting. But, and but: I think I’m personally more interested in what an R.M. Graves experiment looks like than whether R.M. Graves can do a David Mitchell experiment. Sometimes the most valuable thing we can make is that which is off-the-wall ourselves—which is entirely our own authorial voice.
So: There are solid ways to make “Bird’s Eye” a better expression of the David Mitchell trick. But, during further drafts of this piece, I’d ask you to keep an eye out for those individualities: What trick is your own, and which of these tools fit your hands? And then: What might you make of them, when they’re entirely yours?
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012), and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)