Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Hotwire And The Concrete Rainbow by RM Graves

“Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow” snagged my attention this month with the places it departs quietly from archetype: a round spacebound girl who joins a punk band with a backpack of books, whose core emotion isn’t resentful anger but a kind of grief. It kept it with some deft thematic work, but there’s room to grow here too in order to make this piece shine. So this month, I’d like to talk about pacing and its context: how we can look to each scene and feeling in a story to dictate the pace of the last and next.

As ever with this author, I love the voice in this piece: lines like “the power of keeping your mouth shut in a time of commoditised opinion” and “being the size of two bulls shagging” made me laugh out loud. There’s always a wry sense of humour in this author’s work that makes it move and dance even—especially—when in dark places, and it really fits well with a future punk aesthetic. As does the sheer physical grounding of “Hotwire”: lines like “palms tipped up to the drizzle – to cool the throb of my new stigmata piercings – and my head in the clouds”, the space station as septum piercing, the cables and sharing bodily sensation versus plugging into the void, how deeply Sidney feels music, the difference between being dead and alive—all create a tangible, undeniable theme-and-variation on physicality. What results is a story about the difference between scene and relationship, real and unreal, that’s firmly grounded in the body: the fallibility and modifiability of bodies, fake digital bodies, a craving for the real—and then builds into imposter syndrome and image and how adapting the world to yourself fits into the very notion of space habitats, into experiencing the real.

There’s also an interesting juxtaposition in Sidney’s hurt, defensive attitude toward her parents and how anguished and avoidant she is about hurting them; how anguished and avoidant she is about letting anybody down. She’s a struggling people-pleaser, someone who’s got a significant amount of independence in her day-to-day life (her own flat, no chip), an ache to be noticed, and boundaries that barely exist, and there’s a painful, hopeful aspect to watching her struggle, half self-aware. I’d be tempted to unwind that struggle with a little more subtlety and gradualness. “Who wants me more?” lays that internal conflict out baldly, and I think that tips the story’s hand a little too early. That conflict’s clearly demonstrated further down in the scene, and it’s an interesting emotional hook to spool out longer, more satisfyingly.

Which leads into the core suggestion I have for “Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow”: an editing pass with an eye to the emotional pacing and line of conflict. The opening, in particular, feels a little emotionally abrupt, and the turn into Jack and Skart’s breakup and Skart’s transition from rejecting Sidney to accepting her again was quick enough that they inspired a little whiplash. I’m not sure where any of those emotions are rooted—that quick-fire rejection/acceptance/belonging—and their suddenness frays my immersion in the world and the story.

There’s a lot of mileage in interesting worldbuilding and narrative voice, but by the time Sidney’s driving the truck to the gig, the cumulative effect of those quick and shallow-feeling turns meant I found myself lightly disengaging; not enough was, for me, escalating, developing, or changing.

These issues are ones that exist specifically in tandem. The emotional turns feel abrupt because the intermediate scenes are moving slower; the intermediate scenes feel slower by contrast with the emotional turns. When we’re reading a story for pacing, we’re reacting less to an objective measurement than the subjective, contextual one the story itself has already set: just like driving a car, fast feels slow if we’ve been going breakneck already, and vice versa. Sometimes the key to correcting a pacing issue isn’t altering the scenes where it itself shows up: it’s adjusting their context.

So with that in mind, I’d suggest taking the problem on as a linked problem, and attacking it from both ends. Specifically, I’d try playing the grounding and physicality up—play to the story’s strengths. The line of patter here carries the piece far, but I think relying on it too strongly might be the root of some of the story’s pacing issues; it’s a narrative style that takes a lot of page space to maintain, and tends to talk around experiences rather than getting directly to the heart of them. Shifting some, but not all, of that weight to visceral physical detail—playing up those thematic connections around embodiment hard—might pop “Hotwire and the Concrete Rainbow” into colour and assist with the pacing issues all at once. The intermediate scenes come out stronger, more vivid, sharper, and shorter by virtue of cutting a little wordcount; the plot turns look calmer and better-paced by comparison. Neither has to change much; they just meet in the middle more effectively.

The second major issue is the ending, and that I’m not sure the question being asked is the one being answered by Sidney’s choice to connect to the void. The conflict set up is very much to do with acceptance, with being seen and love and fake versus real regard, and the answer given feels abruptly decisive, not entirely built up to, and as if it’s solving a different problem than the one posed. Committing to the punk scene might answer the question of where Sidney’s going to sleep tonight, but I’m not sure it solves that hesitation, that people-pleasing, that deep hurt that characterizes her from the very first scene. I didn’t get a sense of solace or progress for that pain, and the ending doesn’t land satisfyingly for me as a result: I feel the echo of the resolution I’m supposed to feel, but just the echo.

So while looking at the pacing, I’d suggest a strong look at aligning the conflict with the solution, and vice versa, in the same fashion: adjust the problem a little, or adjust the solution. As long as they meet in the middle, the average speed will work out.

All in all, there’s a lot of potential here: a truly interesting protagonist I feel for, a fresh-feeling take on space habitat living, a concreteness I can relish and read with my hands. I very much look forward to seeing a new version!

Best of luck!

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

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