Editor’s Choice Award May 2018, 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.

Remembrance Dear And Damn’d Oblivion by Antonia Overstreet

I noticed “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” this month for its apocalyptic setting, its play on memory, and its concept. However, “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” reads oddly detached for a story centering so much on action, peril, and regret, and the potential loss of a parent in a world empty enough that Padi is almost Mbani’s entire society—a point already noted in the author’s notes, where the goal is to cut to the emotional core of the piece. So, this month I’d like to suggest a more holistic approach to that problem and discuss tone and how we establish it: why how we convey information is just as important as what we say, and how to make those match.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” has all the markers of a story that’s highly emotional and highly action-oriented: an in media res opening—with a storm, no less!—a parent in peril, terrible choices to be made. However, the way it’s told—the diction, the use of grounding details, the pacing, the atmosphere—are almost entirely at odds with the story readers are informed they’re going to get, and the effect turns out to be jarring for me as a reader.

We’ll look at these craft elements one by one, and hopefully, by the end, have a recipe for bringing out the emotion in this piece.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” is a story explicitly centred around memory—losing it, sacrificing it, holding on to it—and that means readers’ attention is going to be called to the relative vibrancy of Mbani’s descriptors and memories. The piece pulls off a real contrast in the back half, when Mbani is remembering the people she loves, but that contrast itself highlights the small corners cut, the sentence-level shorthanding in the rest of the piece.

“Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” really shines when it’s working with concrete details—the smell of storms, the sound of rain in the dust—but they’re frequently overshadowed by sketchier, more archetypical descriptors—a scream surrounded by appropriately timed thunder—or thoughts that are only halfway on the page. For example: “It’s pointless to cry any longer, drowned out by the rain.” Is the point of Mbani’s tears to be seen or heard (by whom?). Why? Does she mean “cry out to Padi” instead? This is a tiny imprecision, but it’s the kind that adds up slowly for readers to create a sense of cardboard sets instead of real worlds—and the kind that brings a story and its emotions into sharpness and focus when defined well.

I’d also look at hedge words: “I feel” comes up a great deal, as if Mbani is reporting her feelings to the reader from a distance—and that of course distances the emotion readers receive. I’d suggest looking at ways to communicate Mbani’s feelings that aren’t direct reportage: her body language, her reactions, what she notices or doesn’t, the tone of her voice. All those things are clues that readers can use to have a more direct pipeline to her emotional state.

I’d extend that to the narrative voice, and think about what forces or people in the story do rather than what readers are told they’re going to do. For example, lightning is a significant danger when you’re in a flash-flooding desert and you’re the tallest thing around; it’s a significant physical risk. And Mbani’s narration seems to acknowledge that, with: “I can try to drag him home, but will he make it that long? Will I?” But the story then undercuts this flag to readers (“look out, there’s risk from the weather”) by leaving Mbani and Padi out in the storm for the entire rest of the piece, with no ill effects. The shown message is undermining the told message, and generally readers will believe what we show them over what they’re told is true. I’d suggest thinking about how to bring those two things into alignment: how does what Mbani does support, not contradict, what she’s saying she does, feels, or thinks?

For another example where the narrative undermines the emotional content: “Grit and gravel bite into my bare skin, only aggravating the awkwardness of the pose.” The first half of this sentence sets readers up for a stimulus response: pain. What we get instead is aggravation and awkwardness, which then feels like an underreaction on Mbani or the story’s part—and one that’s distanced or underplayed physical sensation or emotion, in a story that’s supposed to be about pain. Again, the messages don’t match.

That sense of danger-but-not-danger extends into the pacing and structure. “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” feels quite long, even at 2,600 words, and I’d suggest that’s because of the structural loops in the back half of the story: Mbani repeatedly trying to experience and forget dear memories, and those memories repeatedly not being enough to heal Padi (and how does the exciser know what memory is sufficient to heal someone, anyway?). These actions aren’t moving the narrative forward; the failures aren’t creating new situations or new choices, and when put up against the fact that Mbani and the narrative are telling us this is an urgent situation, again, there’s a clash. Which message should readers believe? Bringing those messages into cooperation—pacing and plotting that support, and not undermine the idea that this is a high-risk situation—means there’s one unified message, and it’s clear to readers how Mbani feels, and how reading this is supposed to feel.

As it stands, the ways “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” undermines its own message in the delivery create a simultaneous distance and self-centredness; a situation that should be visceral, wrenching, painful, frightening, desperate which is rendered in a way that seems clinical, a philosophical problem being handled from far away. What wouldn’t you forget to save one you love, asked in a laboratory setting. “I could lose him at any moment,” the piece reminds us, but I’d suggest that a stronger draft of “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” wouldn’t need to tell anyone so. It would hang over the entire story, over Mbani’s every action, over how she chooses her actions like a stink.

Ultimately, I’d suggest looking at “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” through that lens: What it’s supposed to say, and how every element of craft either supports or negates that idea. Bring “Remembrance Dear and Damn’d Oblivion” into colour—real stakes, real choices, real pain, real loss, real indecision, and a real possibility that she might choose another path or the path she chooses might not work after all—and the emotion will come pouring through.

Best of luck!

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

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